Ghost signs still haunt America. The more you Google them, the more you find. And, the more you find, the more fascinating they are.
Ghost signs are faded, hand-painted signs on the outside of old shop and office buildings. Interestingly, they may be fragments or whole words. For example, “Eat Carnation Mush,” “Edelweiss Beer,” or “Coca-Cola Relieves Fatigue”, are good examples of the practice.
The Industrial Revolution ushers in ghost signs
During the Industrial Revolution, industries began mass-producing products for a growing urban population. Eventually, advertisers realized they could paint on outdoor walls. Apparently, that was the cheapest way to get noticed. So, they painted on just about everything. It may seem shocking now, but they even painted over Georgian or Victorian-era buildings. Unfortunately, there were no preservation laws at that time.
Of course, advertisers paid homeowners monthly rent for the use of their walls. The parties involved signed contracts that lasted many years. American advertisers could openly paint on the outside of tall city office buildings and apartment blocks – even farm structures. One sign painter illustrated chewing tobacco on 20,000 barns!
Madison Avenue changed everything
By the 1950s, the new materials of plastic and neon revolutionized the sign industry. What’s more, Madison Avenue’s multi-marketing approach of advertising in magazines, radio, television, and printed billboards, offered clients broad graphic consistency. This meant no more uneven, hand-painted building advertisements by local painters. It also meant the beginning of the end for outdoor, brick wall advertising.
The term, Ghost Signs, emerged in the middle of the 1970s. Soon after, in 1989, the first book on the subject was written by William Stage: Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America. Not surprisingly, it involved decades of travel and required standing on dumpsters and rooftops to photograph views of what passers-by had once thought were normal and unremarkable brick building advertisements.
Ghost signs in America still live!
Obviously, the world had changed. Ghost signs gradually faded. However, since most were too large to remove, they remained. Fortunately, the U.S. has an active preservation movement. Some enthusiasts even hope that these faded memories – these ghosts – will gain a similar cachet as Banksy’s public art. And that could raise property values. Whodathunkit? For the time being, they are still ghost signs that haunt America – advertising apparitions from the past.
View more ghost signs in Fort Collins at https://medium.com/@david3ecker/13-ghost-signs-of-old-town-fort-collins-cb3b8c573704.
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