Ghost Signs

What is a "Ghost Sign"? Ghost signs are beer advertisements painted on brick walls in Milwaukee and throughout the U.S. Some are most vivid after an adjacent wall has been torn down. Others are visible just after a rainfall. According to the [Society for Commercial Archeology], a sign may fall into several categories. It may be a landmark (at least 20 years old and of special significance because of its design, size or configuration). Or it could be historic (theater marquees, neon letters and wood signs whose craftsmanship and construction materials speak of earlier eras). Or it may be a "ghost sign" - a faded, painted sign, at least 50 years old, on an exterior building wall heralding an obsolete product, an outdated trademark or a clue to the history of the building's occupancy. These ghost signs often reappear after a rainstorm or following the demolition of a neighboring building. (1)

"The early billboards could be found on barns and brick walls, in popular alleyways and warehouses across the country from about the 1890s until the television age. . .. As time marched on, old buildings were torn down or the old signs were painted over. Yet a few remain, their lead lettering often serving as the sole reminder of the product or service they sold. Some are visible only after a rain, prompting the nickname "ghost signs." (2)

"The old sign painters used white lead for white, lampblack for black. They'd make a paper pattern of the design, then perforate the lines with a small device called a pattern wheel, a tiny spiked wheel on a handle. Roll the wheel around the lines of a pattern and the spikes would leave a series of holes. Then the painter would fasten the pattern to the wall and pat the outline with a cotton bag filled with chalk or powdered charcoal, called a "pounce" bag. The result was a dotted line, like connect-the-dots drawing. The paint was mixed with linseed oil and vanish, with perhaps gasoline as a rapid drying agent. The result was long-lasting, though time and sun ages all paint. White lead deteriorated slowest of all the pigments, so many signs today are white "ghosts" of the original. Many old signs have vanished beneath fresh paint or stucco. Once painted over, the signs are destroyed, but stucco can fall off and, like a Rembrandt beneath a painting of poker playing dogs, the classic artwork resurfaces. We pass these fading examples of folk art without a second glance--old brick walls and barn sides proclaiming the virtues of products long since vanished from the market. All that remains is a wispy spirit, clinging to crumbling walls." (3)

"According to the [Society for Commercial Archeology], a sign may fall into several categories. It may be a landmark (at least 20 years old and of special significance because of its design, size or configuration). Or it could be historic (theater marquees, neon letters and wood signs whose craftsmanship and construction materials speak of earlier eras). Or it may be a "ghost sign" - a faded, painted sign, at least 50 years old, on an exterior building wall heralding an obsolete product, an outdated trademark or a clue to the history of the building's occupancy. These signs often reappear after a rainstorm or following the demolition of a neighboring building." (2)

Join us in documenting and helping to preserve Ghost Signs !!!

There are many more out there. Please alert us as we plan an on-going gallery of "Ghost Sign" photos in our Virtual Exhibits to celebrate this example of signmaker's art.

Credits: 
(1) Beth Sherman, "Design Notes," Newsday, June 1, 1989 (2) Kaitlin Gurney, "Sign, sealed, delivered," The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), October 1, 1999 (3) Ghosts on the Bricks by Joel M. Vance