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Texas | Images | Ghost Signs

FORGOTTEN TEXAS

GHOST SIGNS in TEXAS

Text and photos by John Troesser

"I fade, therefore, I am"
Palimpsests on pediments.
Reading between (and through) the faded lines of Advertising's Bronze Age
A ghost sign reappears in Giddings
Even in their current muted shades they prove that the past wasn't all black, white or sepia.

Ghost Signs and Sign Painters

Everyone 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.
The 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 ghost sign
Dr Pepper / Wrigley Gum and Privlege Sign in Gonzales, Texas
Photo by John Troesser, 11-3-2002

The 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.

While thousands 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.

Battle Ax tobacco ghost sign


A Battle Ax plug Tobacco sign appears in Luling, Texas

Photo by John Troesser, 11-2002
Drive-in ghost sign

A former drive-in now bricked-up. Bryan, Texas
Photo by John Troesser, 6-2001

When 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.

Saloon walls sported tobacco and beer ads while grocer's walls tended toward staples. Soft drink signs lived in both worlds.

Coca Cola sign
The "Real Thing" in Flatonia, Signed by "Eddie and Monk" in December 1966
Photo by John Troesser, November 2002

Looking 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.

Ghost Sign Preservation

The disappearance 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.


Ghost Signs as Movie Artifacts - next page
John Troesser
December, 2002

More Ghost Signs


Texas Escapes, in its purpose to preserve historic, endangered and vanishing Texas, asks that anyone wishing to share their local history, stories, landmarks and vintage or recent photos, please contact us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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