Ghost signs: Disappearing brick wall art

Staff reports
One of the 'ghost signs' found in Devils Lake.

By Marlen Kemmet

Special to the Journal

Long before billboards sprang up along highways, brick walls across America provided the perfect canvas for larger-than life advertisements. Beverages, tobacco products, coffees, flour, drugs, and anything else that benefitted from outdoor promotion greeted motorists in cities and well-travel roads.

Although looked upon as art by some signage connoisseurs today, painted walls were little more than a highly visible form of advertising painted in conspicuous locations for the purpose of soliciting business. Ghost signs, also called fading ads and brickads were commonly used from the 1880s on up to the advent of the Interstate System.

Wall signs were still being created profusely in the 40s and 50s. The interstate systems brought the billboards which tended to replace wall signs. The painted images can indeed be ‘ghostly’ when you try to decipher the fading words and images. Often, one sign would be painted over another if the wall was in a heavily trafficked area.

Today, it is not uncommon to have two painted signs showing through on a brick wall as the layers of paint decay independently of each other. The signs' remarkable durability, the fact that we can read some of them a century after they were painted, is specifically because of the lead paint. The filler may flake and peel but the letters and maybe the pictorial done in lead will endure the elements.

As exterior advertising formats changed, less time-intensive signs appeared in the late 20th century. Hand-painted brick walls gave way to faster, cheaper, and less-durable roadside billboards.

As Jack C. Porter, Preservation Consultant for the State Historical Society of Iowa stated, “Ghost signs are a remnant of our historic heritage. A ghost sign gives a clue as to the historic development of our city, a casual hint to the evolution of businesses and advertizing techniques. Long gone are many of the painted ads letting us know what was the latest new business or its wares. Ghost signs are as much of our historic heritage as metal or neon signs inviting us into a world long forgotten.”

Supposedly named for their tenacity for working like dogs, “wall dogs” painted advertisements from scaffolds or suspended by block and tackle. In his book Ghost Signs, Wm. Stage writes, “They were a rugged lot in the tradition of cowboys, mariners, and Arctic Explorers. They painted signs on walls, great and small. As a group they embodied an eclectic mix of skills often associated with the draftsman, the chemist, the artist and even the acrobat.”

The porous surface of brick often created a special problem of soaking up large amount of paint. To overcome this, wall dogs would use a filler to start the process. And, if hanging from a wall or standing on makeshift scaffolding wasn’t dangerous enough, the painters used a substance known as white lead to mix with their colors. The mixture created a flat finish that would flex with weather conditions. Although the lead-based paints used in the early to mid-20th century are a major factor in a sign’s visibility today, constant exposure to white lead caused lead poisoning among some of the sign painters.

My method for finding ghost signs is simple. Drive slowly down main street or the older section of any town and look up on both sides of the street at the exposed expanses of brick walls. Once you reach the end of the street, turn around and check the walls facing the opposite direction. After that, do the same in the alley ways adjacent to these areas. If people honk because you’re driving too slow or erratic, pretend you texting, that seems to be socially acceptable. Walking the alleys of downtown Devils Lake, I found several brick ads of prior businesses including Bowling Alleys and Laundry.

Although Devils Lake has several visible, but slowly fading ghost signs for bygone businesses, my favorite find is the Land of Sky Blue Waters advertisement I found when biking the side streets of Superior, Wisconsin.  The Northwood’s scene, with an island in the middle, was created from an actual photograph commissioned by Hamm Brewing Company and used with their slogan ‘Born in the Land of Sky Blue Waters’. The painted sign is a reproduction of a photograph taken at Kettle Falls, a crossroads for travels between Rainy and Namakan lakes near International Fall, Minnesota in the 1950s.

I’ve searched warehouse districts and downtown areas from Montana to New Mexico in search of these old advertisements. And often when I ask locals about the history of the sign, most respond with a blank stare or state they didn’t even realize it was there. As with most ghost signs, you can pass by them dozens of times without actually ever having them visually register.  Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, it’s amazing with a bit of detective work how many apparitions you can find hiding among the decades-old brick walls of downtown America.

About the Author

Marlen Kemmet is the Managing Editor for Better Homes and Gardens WOOD magazine and son of Marge Kemmet of Devils Lake.