Old-school billboards, fading ads, ghost signs… chances are you’ve glanced up in an old part of town and wondered about the lost-in-time, peeling, and sometimes barely legible advertising for wares you’ve never heard of on the sides of buildings.
Before the super LCD digital screens off the highway, before industrial printed vinyl signs that can cover anything, before the invention of neon lighting, public advertising was painted on windows and sides of merchant’s buildings by “mechanics”.
As the industrial revolution shook the western world, and corner store craftspeople were being replaced by large corporations with thousands of square footage of machinery, competition was high. In an age without television, internet, radio, telephones and movies, there were few modes to let the populace of a city know about the fabulous product you produced. Beginning in the mid 1800s in stepped the advertising agencies, newly formed to market these new mass produced items, and up went the painters, “wall dogs” they were called, to make a product come to life.
This fading ad was found in Holland:
Today these “ghost signs” have mostly perished by being painted over, the building knocked down, a newer sign put up over it, or being hidden by newer buildings. The natural elements also play a large part in making them obscure: sun (especially), rain, snow, hail, wind, ice. Technically “ghost signs” mean the fading-beyond-recognition type signs that may not be readable no matter how much you squint; but considering this old technique of painting straight onto brick walls is virtually no longer used I think the term “ghost sign” should apply to any public painted ad from 1800 to 1980.
This sign is from Kensington Market in Toronto. I’d guess it was from the 1980s or 1990s.
From Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America by W.M. Stage, “Some call them ‘ghost signs’, apparitions visible under certain light conditions when their painted letters rise from the wall to herald a forgotten flour or smoking tobacco.”
Frank Jump is an AIDS activist, photographer, and teacher. He found fading ads a metaphor for his own life – living with HIV for half of it. Some signs are over a century old and not suppose to last as long as they did – like his own body. Frank started the website fadingad.com and published the book Fading Ads of New York City:
“It’s such a digital nation and globe, where everything is on the Internet – I love it, I got master’s in technology because I wanted to move with technology – but at the same time, there’s something very tactile about painted signs. They’re painted by hand; they’re painted by a person. It’s an artists rendering. It’s much more personal, something that could last a long time, a century and a half perhaps, if you’re lucky. Banner ads on websites don’t last very long unless you take screen shots and back that up and back that up. Things are becoming a lot more ephemeral.”
Fox Deluxe Beer:
What kept the fading ads we see today visible were mainly other buildings being built beside them, shielding them from the elements. When the newer buildings are torn down, the ads are revealed after years or decades of being hidden. Also, northern exposures which limit sunlight help preserve the paint.
The story of ghost sign is as follows:
Acquisition of an ad was done by the ad agency’s advance man (salesman) or the artist (wall dog) themselves (although back in the day they were never called “artists” – it was thought to be demeaning and the men preferred “mechanic” if a more formal title than “wall dog” was needed).
A privilege was when the agency, along with painting their product on the side of the building, would also paint personalized ads for the merchant. This usually took the form of gold leaf on the windows or a small mention in the larger product ad. Merchants got “paid” in privilege or products. If a merchant didn’t have enough of the specific product to pay off the cost of the ad he or she would not be allowed a privilege.
Gold leaf is another art and business practice that’s being lost:
A lease was another way the agency secured the wall space. The property owner would be offered cash or vouchers for cash. Farmers in particular would often give over the side of their barn for a gold watch. Many wall dogs would exchange help on the farm for ad space. They found themselves milking cows, painting fences or helping in the fields.
Once the ad space was secured a miniature of the ad was sketched. In the late 1800s it was the ad painter who designed the logo. The ad was often one inch to one foot in scale. Patterns were not used prior to 1940. My pal Five Seventeen worked for a mural company in the early 2000s. He says nowadays the artist would work from a grid, usually one inch to one foot, and a projector. He says, “ ‘Life size’ people are always drawn larger by about 10% to make up for the 2D aspect.” In the days of ghost ads the mechanics would often count bricks to make sure the letters didn’t run off the side of the building. There wasn’t a lot of time to be precise.
Colour was very important in making sure the ads would be noticed, as well as deep shadows and extreme highlights. Block letters would almost always be preferred over cursive script because it’s a lot easier to paint blocks than curves. Lines were “snapped” (laid down) with white chalk to keep the letters straight; however an easier trick was to use the mortar joints (the spaced filled with grout between the bricks). The mechanic had to know what an ad would look like from afar. The ads were often 50 feet tall by 20 feet wide.
Bricks are porous so on scores of jobs many coats of paint had to be applied. The paint was applied with fitch (black sable) brushes or flat cutters. The cutters were 1 -2” wide (in interior painting they are used for “cutting in” — which means painting the edges and outlines first, in a more controlled way). They have longer handles than regular paint brushes and the coarse bristles are great for brick and stucco walls. The fitches were ¼” to 1” wide for detailing.
In the early days there were no premixed paints – it was the job of the wall dog himself to ensure uniformity. Colour pigment, dry or ground with linseed (flax) oil, was mixed with white lead. The lead made a flatter rather than glossy finish and took longer drying between coats, sometimes several days.
The wall dogs were like working hobos – often traveling across the country, weathered and grizzled by the sun, having many adventures the office worker never faced. The dogs had skills of chemists, draftsmen, artists and acrobats.
In spring the ad agencies would have 15 two men crews on the road for 3-4 months crisscrossing the cities and countryside. Often the men painted a sign a day. They would finish at night using their truck lights. R.E. Nauman recalled driving around in a Model T Ford truck in 1928 and 1929 painting Coca-Cola ads in Ohio. The truck had a bed stashed in it because there weren’t many motels in that day. The men would often paint their boots black before going out for the day to cover the colourful paint splattered on them.
Winds would send uncovered paint cans splashing down onto passersby. Wall dogs themselves would often send down streams of chewing tobacco spit. City mechanics were often taken for peeping toms and there were many hornet attacks in both urban and country locations. Wall dog Tom Cavanaugh reflected on one memorable forehead smacking moment of his colleagues back in the day, “[The sign] was a beautiful job. Unfortunately it was the wrong wall.”
The lead in the paint, used until World War II, while prolonging the longevity of an ad, took its toll on the wall dogs. Lead poisoning was a common ailment as the men suffered from stomach aches, headaches and disorientation. Those that didn’t wear gloves also eventually got “club hands” making their digits gnarled and misshapen. Before the upsurge of unions, if the dogs got sick they would miss valuable paychecks.
Paint today uses zinc instead of lead. It mostly just lies on top and doesn’t soak in. It is quicker to set and quicker to fade. Sign painters today half mourn the loss of lead in their paint. While their health is better, the quality isn’t there. 1 Shot, in business since 1948, is today’s sign painters paint choice.
While wall dogs saw their numbers shrink with the advent of vinyl letters and then vinyl signs and billboards, there are a small number of artists who still make their living wall dog style. They have a passion, maybe even more intense than the original dogs, for this dying art.
A modern day wall ad:
Phil Vandervaart is still painting brick walls in Minneapolis. “I just do one sign at a time and put all my heart and soul into it. My goal is for my clients’ businesses to succeed; then my signs stay up a long time…When signs do have to come down — a lot of them do even within the year I paint them — I want to kill my own sign. I don’t want someone else to do it. There are some locations that I just paint over and over again.”
Here’s a video of Phil and Forrest painting an “ad to God”.
Justin Green, who took up sign painting when his wife got pregnant and his cartoonist job wasn’t enough for three, says “[In the old days] you’d be on your knees lettering an industrial roll-up door with the words “Tow Away” and the next day you’d be on the thirty-fourth floor of a bank’s head-quarters painting gold leaf. Every strata of society valued your skill. It was phenomenal.”
While some mechanics incorporate new technology with old techniques it’s acknowledged that nothing compares to a skilled painter. “Using technology can be a slippery slope. The challenge is to continue drawing letters by hand rather than just settling on all the fonts that you can pull off the internet to generate whatever people want,” says Damon Styer of San Francisco. He has his staff come in for half an hour a day to practice lettering until it becomes second nature. Os are particularly hard.
Mark Oatis who paints with his wife Rose, says “It takes a lot of practice. It seems like a computer deprives you of that basic contemplative groove that you get into when you work.”
Harley Warrick painted Mail Pouch Tobacco signs for over forty years. This is him working in 1987:
One company that still uses wall dogs is Colossal Media. You can read about their modern exploits, including some paint mishaps, here.
My own interest in ghost signs has coincided with my interest in old ads in general. A decade ago I remember looking up one day in Toronto and seeing my own last name on the side of a building – fading and peeling and barely noticeable. For this blog I ventured out with my camera to try and find it again, but I’m pretty sure the building has been knocked down or another building is covering it. I found some other ones, and share them below. Although they were some of the better ghost signs I’ve seen, they were hard to come by. Toronto, like most other North American cities, is really keen on knocking down the old and making way for the new. Our building preservation societies are no match for real estate developers. While this can be exhilarating and help propel us into the future, it is disturbing that no care is taken to preserve or archive what use to exist and show us what kind of lives we use to live. I can’t help but make a connection to these fading signs and the fading independent business community we lose every year because of chain and box stores.
There are a few websites made by and for ghost sign lovers. They are fascinating and exciting to look through!
A vegetarian restaurant in Toronto named themselves after a ghost sign found on one of their walls after a reno:
Like most blogs, This Analog Earth! is made up of research and wisely knowledge gathered over the years. Here is a list of resources I got information from:
Ghost Signs: Brick wall signs in America by WM Stage
Fading Ads of New York City by Frank Jump
Sign Painters by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon
Thanks a heap to Jim Munroe for copy editing! nomediakings.org
Have you seen some cool ghost signs? Post here!