14 Jan 2017

Tracing the Origins of ‘Ghost’ Signs

When did old painted signs on walls become known as ‘ghost’ signs, and who coined the phrase? These questions crop up often in my discussions with others, and on my tours, and I always have to hold my hand up and say I didn’t invent the term, but have just made use of it for my own work.

I our paper (‘What is a Ghost Sign?‘) for the Advertising & Public Memory book, Geraldine Marshall and I state that William Stage was the first to use the term in his seminal book, Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America (1989). However, since writing this I have done some more digging, and made use of the wonderful Google Ngram tool (results here). This has revealed earlier uses of the term to refer to historic painted signage which I’ll briefly summarise here.

The earliest I have now found dates from 1981. It is from Historic Preservation: Quarterly of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, Volumes 33-34, p.17, and refers to the appearance of a ghostsign in Brooklyn after a fire destroying an adjacent building. If anyone has a copy of the original publication and/or a scan then please get in touch via sam@ghostsigns.co.uk.

Historic Preservation: Quarterly of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings, Volumes 33-34, p.17

Next is 1985, and a Canadian book called Reviving Main Street. On page 156 it contains the following text, with the image below on the facing page.

“In Windsor, Nova Scotia, for example, a faded Coca-Cola sign, painted on an otherwise undistinguished side wall on Walter Street, contributed a visual focus at one entrance to down-town. A new coat of paint has brought the ‘ghost sign’ to life, and it enhances the view along the street.”

Reviving Main Street, p.156

The last reference I have found that pre-dates William Stage’s work is from 1987, a publication by Norman Mintz called Signs on Main Street. This contains a handful of references which are quoted below. Again, if anyone has access to a hard or digital copy of this publication then please let me know via sam@ghostsigns.co.uk.

“From the mid-19th Century to the early 20th Century, signs painted directly onto buildings were a popular form of advertising. These signs are frequently found on side walls or upper stories of older buildings. Usually faded with age, they are known as phantom or ghost signs. Painted wall signs are important reminders of commercial history or community heritage. Whether repainted or allowed to fade, ghost signs should be left exposed for the enjoyment of future generations.” (p.4)

“There are a number of ways to educate a community about good sign design. Walking tours of the business district, for example, can focus attention on ghost signs, and other historic sign types.” (p.25)

That makes three ‘pre-Stage’ references that we failed to reference in our article, although none as substantial as an entire book, as is the case with Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America. I’d love to track down any earlier citations and/or details of who first coined the phrase so please add to the comments below or send an email to sam@ghostsigns.co.uk.

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