Last month an afternoon show called “Show Me St. Louis” featured a report about “ghost signs.” Those are the fading painted signs on the side of brick buildings, identifying the business or advertising a product. Such signs were often painted atop earlier signs and as time wears away the paint, the two or three signs overlap. The reporter found several examples of ghost signs around St. Louis, including a barely-visible ad for a bread company along with a drawing of a baseball player holding a loaf of bread. On the side of another building, the reporter found two signs, one atop the other, for different brands of beer. The more recent ad was barely readable but, of course, was more readable than the earlier sign underneath. Some of the featured signs–variously for shoe stores, blacksmiths, and other businesses and products–were from the early 20th century.
The story made me look at this picture above more closely. This sign is in St. Elmo, Illinois, in my home county. I took the photo ten years ago; it hangs in our house as a pleasant small-town scene. The ad for Mail Pouch tobacco is still very readable, and I’d noticed that the tobacco ad covered a previous sign, which I can’t decipher. But on closer inspection, I realized a third, earlier sign can be discerned beneath that previous sign (the faint “GO” or “60” right above the “UC” of “pouch”). What were the two older advertisements?
Here’s a picture of the side of a dry cleaner in our hometown. Taken by one of my classmates, this picture appears on the “Vandalia Memories” page of Facebook. I’ve seen this ghost sign all my life and I don’t ever remember it being readable; nevertheless the word “Shoes” is still clear. Ghost signs always make you wish that you could peak back into history so you could see the original message.
Elsewhere in my hometown is a Mail Pouch ad on the back of a building on Fifth Street, and also an ad for Brunswick Tires on the side of the old Craycroft building, once an auto dealership, on the south side of the railroad tracks on Fifth Street. One of my very earliest memories was a building of some sort on Sixth Street, also on the south side of the tracks. A billboard was attached to the north side of the building over a painted ad for Coca Cola; even though I was quite young, I noticed the distinctive cursive C that had not been covered by the sign.
Below is still another sign which I noticed in Pennsylvania this past summer. The electric sign of the old furniture store has seen better days, but the ghost sign was still pretty readable: this furniture store was “Greensburg’s Finest!” The position of the electric sign made me wonder if the ghost sign had one owner’s name, and then perhaps the business changed hands and the electric sign was installed with a new owner’s name covering that portion of the painted sign.
I should look to see if anyone has published a book about ghost signs. I do have favorite books about advertisements that appear on barns: David B. Jenkins, Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Free Spirit Press, 1996) and William G. Simmonds, Advertising Barns: Vanishing American Landmarks (MBI Publishing, 2004). Old signs like all of these are pleasant reminders of times past and are, literally, vanishing Americana.