While walking around your nearest urban centre, try looking up. Can you see the remains of any old advertisements, painted right there on the brick? If so, you’re looking at ghost signs.
I love ghost signs! We used to have a brilliant one for Jack Daniel’s in Newcastle until someone installed a brand new billboard over it.
They’re a fantastic link to the past, and in a lot of cases, I think they should actually be preserved properly. They illustrate the history of advertising, for one thing.
Ghost signs also tell you a lot about social history.
Take the photo above. The building is now the Tyne Theatre on Westgate Road but the sign on the wall advertises it as being the Stoll, ‘Tyneside’s Talkie Theatre’.
The original theatre became the Stoll Picture Theatre on 2 June 1919. It was the first cinema in Newcastle to show ‘talkies’! The rise of television saw its decline and it closed in 1974.
Luckily a campaign was started to save the building and it was converted back to a theatre. It reopened in 1977. It’s a little slice of cinematic history, right there on the street!
But what are ghost signs?
Glad you asked! Ghost signs advertise for long gone products or shops that no longer exist. You often find them on gable ends on older buildings. The products or services they advertise might no longer exist but the signs remain.
There are hundreds of them in London, out of the way but not out of mind. They can also be found across America, France, and even further afield.
This ghost sign from Dunfermline, Scotland, advertises Angus Campbell Ltd, ‘for all motor cycles, scooters & three wheelers’. The building now houses a second-hand furniture store. The shop frontage evolved with the times, with new signs added when the business changed hands.
But the original proprietor remains present, haunting the property through the perpetuation of his name, painted on the gable end. It’s difficult to ‘date’ the sign because the lettering recalls the typographic choices of the 1930s, while the scooter and the three-wheeler are vehicular choices of the 1950s and 1970s.
What strikes me though is the name hasn’t been painted over or covered with something else.
This advert in Bristo Port, behind the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, advertises; John Donald & Co., china, glass and earthenware merchants. What’s cool about this company is they still exist. They’re now based next door.
Two more ghost signs face each other at the entrance to Old Assembly Close in Edinburgh Old Town. The signs are for Smith Fletcher & Co’s wireworks.
And on the other side…
According to Secret Edinburgh Guide, the Smith Fletcher & Co’s wireworks building was the George Heriots Hospital School in the 19th century. Now the Faculty of Advocates uses it.
Interior ghost signs
I found this ghost sign in Newcastle, inside the Baltic 39 studios on High Bridge. A quick search on Google reveals that T. A. Hall & Sons Ltd occupied the Grade II listed building at 31-39 High Bridge.
The former printing warehouse was converted into a public gallery and studio space, operated by the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. The interior of the building features the Baltic’s black and concrete staircases, but the walls remain the white tiles of the warehouse. This sign is the final testament to the building’s former use.
Strictly speaking, the term ‘ghost sign’ refers to adverts painted directly onto the brickwork of a building. But I’d include this sign as it’s painted directly onto the internal tiles and advertises a company that is no longer there.
Why do ghost signs matter?
Ghost signs are tangible and they record something that no longer exists. Photographs and movies capture the likenesses of people, preserving them for posterity.
In a similar way, ghost signs remind us of products or stores that existed before Google and Yell.com. In those days, a visible advert in a prominent place was the best way to alert passersby to your presence, or products.
The introduction of the billboard in the 1950s rendered such signs obsolete. The switch from brick construction to glass or concrete surely added to their demise.
But it’s easy to erase or misdirect a digital footprint. The continuing presence of these ghost signs is both comforting and disquieting.
They bring ghosts among us, a quiet testament to days gone by, reminding us of simpler times. But they also intrude upon a visual culture that only values graffiti, not hand-painted adverts, on brick.
Should we keep ghost signs?
I certainly think so. Ghost signs are poignant in the paradox of their existence. The point of an advert is to tell us about something, but when that ‘something’ no longer exists, what use do we have of the advert?
Some of the signs now appear divorced from their context as the world changes around them. Without their purpose, is their meaning now obscured? Or do they gain a new purpose?
Often advertising mundane products, or home grown businesses, ghost signs are a monument to those who have gone before. They offer a fascinating glimpse into a world that all the websites in existence can never truly recreate.
Do you have ghost signs in your town? Leave a photo in the comments below!
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