10 Feb 2015

Ghost signs are faded advertisements that were once hand-painted on to the sides of buildings in many of our towns and cities to promote a wide range of products, services or businesses. They were commonly a feature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the most recent adverts dating back to the 1950s. The advent of billboard advertising finally brought to an end the use of ghost signs.

Our Love Affair with Ghost Signs

Even though many of the products, services or businesses advertised on these old signs no longer exist, in recent years there has been a growing interest in ghost signs, leading to a cult following. The internet has become awash with blog posts and forums relating to ghost signs, whilst specific tours have even popped up in many locations. Many ghost-sign enthusiasts are known to travel far and wide just to get a first-hand glance at these faded signs that depict a bygone era.

The Eternal Appeal

What is it that makes ghost signs so fascinating for many people? The attraction is that they offer a glimpse into the history of a place and its people. Many of the products advertised on ghost signs were specific to that particular area, so they were often very local brands. The signs give a clue as to the heritage and industry of that time, long before global brands dominated. As well finding out about a product, you could also learn how to use it, how much it cost, what it could do for you and even who painted the sign in the first place. Yet a ghost sign only tells a fraction of the whole story, and it is this untold mystery that often gives them the biggest appeal.

Billboard advertisements today are largely generic, offering little long-term appeal, yet a ghost sign can let us reconnect with our local area and provide a sense of nostalgia. The signs were normally painted by skilled craftspeople, often known as ‘wall dogs’, using a special oil-based paint designed for masonry. The designs would be unique to the individual who painted them – quite unlike many of the standardised advertisements of the modern world.

Should Ghost Signs Be Preserved?

Many ghost signs are still present on buildings today. Others have succumbed to weathering or demolition to make way for more modern buildings, whilst many may still be hidden behind billboards or trees. There has been a growing number of calls from fans for these signs to be preserved. They say they are historical documents of a local area and even works of art. They believe that ghost signs can give residents and visitors to an area an understanding and appreciation of its history in the same way that other buildings or monuments can, whilst at the same time giving a location a unique character.

A Message Learned

The interesting lesson that can be taken away from the ghost-signs phenomenon is just how important good signage is to ensure that something that has an impact. Even if a business no longer uses its walls to advertise its products or services, well-crafted and memorable signage can stand the test of time no matter how it is executed.