Text and photos
by John Troesser
"I fade, therefore, I am"
Palimpsests on pediments.
Reading between (and through) the faded lines of Advertising's
reappears in Giddings
in their current muted shades they prove that the past wasn't all
black, white or sepia.
and Sign Painters
has seen them. After all, that was the point. They are faded reminders
of (usually) defunct products painted on the fronts and sides of buildings
in small towns and large cities all across the country. Many are still
here; you just need to look for them.
But there was a time when these signs weren't faded. Originally they
were bright colors, mixed on site into a base of heavily-leaded white.
They brightened up what we sometimes mistakenly call the "good old
days" and were responsible in at least a small part for some of the
gaiety of the "Gay '90s." The 1890s, that is. Even in their current
muted shades they prove that the past wasn't all black, white or sepia.
sign painters, who were affectionately
known in the advertising industry as "wall dogs,"
arrived in town unheralded. After unloading ladders and scaffolds
and mixing their colors, they would, in a few short hours, transform
drab, burnt-umber brick walls into 40-foot loaves of sliced bread,
sweating bottles of soft drink or shoelace-selling cherubim.
Dr Pepper / Wrigley Gum and Privlege Sign
in Gonzales, Texas
Photo by John Troesser, 11-3-2003
term "ghost sign" has several layers - like many of the signs
themselves. The products they advertise are usually dead or defunct,
they reappear or "materialize" after a rain and they sometimes appear
after a fire or storm exposes a wall long hidden by another structure.
of these ads were (sometimes justifiably) removed as eyesores, a
handful of remaining signs still show faces and letters. Perhaps
in your town - perhaps on a wall near you.
A Battle Ax plug Tobacco sign appears in Luling,
Photo by John Troesser, 11-2003
former drive-in now bricked-up. Bryan, Texas
Photo by John Troesser, 6-2001
they were new, ghost signs were landmarks
for pedestrians. They gave directions long before towns had traffic
signals. Wall signs weren't pushy like print ads - they were physically
a part of the neighborhood and were trusted like friends or family.
"Privilege signs" were painted gratis
in exchange for the wall space and store owners were proud to have
their names professionally done. Association with strong national
products made store owners look good in the eyes of their customers.
sported tobacco and beer ads while grocer's walls tended toward
staples. Soft drink signs lived in both worlds.
The "Real Thing" in Flatonia, Signed by "Eddie and Monk"
in December 1966
Photo by John Troesser, November 2003
for Ghost Signs
Before we were
aware ghost signs had a name, we uncovered over 100 images of them
in our files. The few shown here are merely examples.
Factory and warehouse districts of larger cities are good hunting
grounds for ghost signs. Many of the signs for defunct business defy
explanation. Factory signs were usually utilitarian, no-nonsense lettering
painted between rows of windows. Dispite their simplicity they provide
mystery and provoke thought.
of painted signs is now being noticed and the sign painter's meticulous,
under-appreciated skill is now being recognized in historic
preservation circles. Fort Collins, Colorado,
Butte, Montana and Sepulpa, Oklahoma
are a few towns restoring their old signs.
Photos of ghost signs or ghost ads now appear on many websites of
urban exploration or commercial archeology. Sadly, many of the images
appear with a footnoted obituary.