Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ghost signs and what they say about us

I have built a whole blog around photos of "ghost signs," yet another sign (no pun intended) that I obsess over the oddest things. In truth, collecting photos of ghost signs may be one of the saner things I do, considering that the shots are easy to get and generally tell their own story.

In a New York Times article on ghost signs, Kathleen Hulser of the New York Historical Society, said, "[The signs] evoke the exuberant period of American capitalism. Consumer cultures were really getting going and there weren't many rules yet, no landmarks preservation commission or organized community saying: 'Isn't this awful? There's a picture of a man chewing tobacco on the corner of my street.'"

So, once again we see how things once seen as crass or tacky become warm, nostalgic reminders of a past that may not have ever existed, at least as we remember it. I'm reminded of this every time I read the history of an old inn that claims to have once hosted a brothel or speakeasy -- with the passage of time even these illicit activities become charming reminders of a bygone era.

The late 1800s through the mid-20th century was the boom time for ghost signs. Nowadays sign ordinances and a new ethic in public salesmanship have pretty much eliminated advertising on the side of brick walls. This is probably for the best, at least partially because it leaves ghost signs as a tribute to a period of time, now gone forever.

Coca Cola and cigarettes (sometimes offering free baseball cards) were the big users of brick advertising in the day, just as Coke nowadays will pay for your business or high school sign in exchange for some dominant space on the same billboard. In some particularly advanced segments of our civilization, communities keep these fading signs repainted, which keeps them fresh but somehow takes some of the magic from the experience. A certain amount of fading is required to create the "ghost" part of the sign.

I've been collecting ghost signs now for a couple of years, and here are my five favorites so far:

 5. Shoshone Ice Caves, Shoshone, Idaho. This gorgeous ghost sign is everything a ghost sign should be: Historical, faded, creative, and of obvious practical value. I just hope that no do-gooders in Shoshone feel compelled to update this spectacular sign.

4. Right in Idaho Falls, one of major landmarks is the former Hotel Rogers, complete with its own beautiful ghost sign, visible above a small pocket park in mid-downtown. Aesthetically pleasing, showing its age but still easily readable, this is another perfect example of a great ghost sign.

3. More valuable for its glimpse into history than its art value, this Obak sign in Portland, Oregon comes from a time in the early 20th century when Obak cigarettes packaged its product with baseball cards. Now, who do you reckon Obak was targeting, and how do you think that would go over today?

2. Still easily visible on the side of an old potato warehouse that may soon be razed, this Idaho Falls landmark has become such a part of the local scenery that few people even notice it any more.

1. My favorite is this billboard for suspenders on the side of a defunct cleaners in Mackay, Idaho. Not only does it advertise a long-lost product with a great name (Spring-O-All suspenders) but it mentions a now-defunct department store, the Mormon-owned ZCMI (Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution). Plus, it contains great artwork and is remarkably preserved.

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