Faded advertising signs painted on broken down barns or old brick buildings have always fascinated me but I never knew what they were called until we moved to Duluth.
Old building buffs call them “Ghosts Signs.”
Ghost signs are a collision of history, folk art and capitalism. We can learn the popular foods, hardware and clothing of the late 19th and early 20th Century and discover old shopping and travel corridors of a particular place. The signs were designed and painted by artists, using the colors, fonts and images of the day. And, of course, they were put in place to sell, sell, sell.
Old advertising signs can tell you a lot about a place. Many signs touted local or regional brands or businesses. Back 1920, most soft drink companies didn’t have corporate headquarters in Atlanta and most cities had their own favorite burger joints.
I photographed a ghost sign in Chattanooga last year. The sign advertised a long-lost BBQ joint. The shapes of the letters, the black and white paint, the handmade look just screamed “Dixie fried” southern art.
It’s also fun to look at the old buildings behind the signs. How did that old paint factory manage to survive the wrecking ball? What did that corner store sell back in the Truman administration? Would I put a hotel or restaurant in that old medical office if I owned it?
Of course, Duluth is loaded with ghost signs. Small cities off the beaten track are slower to tear things down. They don’t need room for a new football stadium or 8-lane freeway.
I learned the “ghost sign” term from the Duluth history website Zenith City Online. Photographer, urban explorer, teacher and Renaissance man Dan Turner chronicles these faded memories in a special monthly feature on the site.
The pictures are always beautiful, the history is polished down to the bolts and the locations never cease to amaze. The feature captures the imagination.
After seeing Turner’s posts, I decided to photograph my own Duluth ghost sign. I stumbled on some flour advertising in West Duluth this winter. A month later, Turner documented the same sign.
It’s impossible to beat the Michelangelo of Duluth ghosts signs.
That’s why I’m posting this one from Rush City.