Ghost Signs

Written October 2013

They’re called ghost signs — leftover wall art advertising businesses and services that, in many cases, no longer exist. Hand painted by “wall dogs” in the days before vinyl billboards became popular, these signs are a history lesson on the early days of advertising.

But they’re quickly becoming a lost art. As older brick buildings are torn down and replaced by modern structures, this piece of early 20th century history goes with them.

One exception is in Petersburg, Va., where the ghost signs are being protected in the town’s historic district as part of an urban renewal project that now sees buildings such as the Virginia Branch of the Barn Art Mercantile Co. being converted into apartments and condos.

These pictures were taken in towns as small as 2,000 (Baird, Texas) and in cities as large as 9 million (New York). What they have in common is the simple messaging — pitching drinks, trips, potions, cosmetics, and other goods you can find in any mom-and-pop store.

Today, you can read more about these signs, which are the subject of several documentaries, books, and websites. The most comprehensive one to check out is William Stage’s, an archive of images that the St. Louis-based journalist started photographing 35 years ago.

I realize several photos in this essay are not technically “ghost signs.” The opening photograph, taken in New York, has the otherworldly feel these signs sometimes bring. Several early neon and floor signs were included because they capture that long-ago era.

Where were these pictures taken? In 19 locations: New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Baltimore, Memphis, Richmond and Petersburg, Va., Evansville, Ind., Boone and Reidsville, N.C, and Lampasas, Baird, and Texas City, Texas.

And finally, one ghost sign is fictional. Can you spot it?