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beautifully preserved the past
Wall Dogs & Ghost Signs
Like dogs with a penchant for roaming, they chained themselves to a wall. Tethered to brick walls above the ground with a brush and bucket of paint in their hands, these daring artists had a mission. Paint an advertisement onto the side of a building. They called themselves wall dogs and some claimed they worked like dogs. I suspect they loved their work and I am certain wall dogs’ ghost signs make our world more mysterious, more beautiful.
You’ve seen ghost signs, an old-fashioned advertisement painted onto a rough and unforgiving canvas, a brick wall. Ghost signs hawked products and businesses that no longer exist, Coca Cola being an exception. The products and businesses they peddled possessed names as colorful as they were in their prime. Owl Cigars. Old Reliable Bruton’s Snuff. The Creamery Café. King Midas Flour. Can’t Bust ’Em Overalls. Uneeda Biscuit. Ballarat Bitter. Made by Cows Milk, Mother’s Bread 100% Pure, and Nightly Bile Beans. Some ads shone a harsh light on the times such as Clark’s Café All White Staff. Exuberant American capitalism some called these ads.
You’ll see rejuvenated ghost signs, some having been preserved for nostalgic reasons. Others continue to fade, a ghostly reminder of the past. Original creators of these vintage ads, works of art, left us long ago. Their work, however, lives on.
Once upon a time, wall advertising was all the rage. Many ghost signs went up in the late 1800s on up to the Great Depression and into the 1960s. Most buildings sported commercials. Advertisements painted directly onto brick buildings brought colorful messages to people in cities, towns, and villages across the country. Zoning and changes such as advertising on billboards led to painted brick advertisements’ demise, but many survive, paint flaking away yet clinging nonetheless to the walls that have long given them a home. Lead-based house paint grips brick with tenacity but relentless sunlight and the elements conspire to fade them. Demolitions to make way for the rise of sparkling but character-starved edifices have robbed us of many ghost signs. When you come across a ghost sign, I advise you to photograph it.
Vintage sign painters were skilled artists and generally worked for one of the major sign companies. They roamed from town to town and lived an eccentric lifestyle. Owners of walls often got a perk, a smaller ad for their own business above or below the main ad. The painters mixed their own paints to exacting colors. Wall dogs used scaled drawings to transfer their designs to walls, making sure the lettering was level, often the wall wasn’t, and they saw that all elements filled the space as planned. Their exacting work survives in the hinterlands and cities but something about small towns and ghost signs go together. When I journey through a town with a sprinkling of stoplights I expect to see ghost signs and more often than not I do. Bleached by sunlight and washed by rains, they do indeed look ghostly, a pale rendition of their former glory. I see, too, new murals designed to give a town a tourism boost. Don’t confuse those with ghost signs. Freshly painted ads on buildings lack authenticity. Real deal signs often promoted patent medicines, tobacco, and beer.
We live in the era of garish digital billboards and that gives me a craving for old ghost signs. Fortunately, modern wall dogs carry on the tradition of painting on buildings and they do so in a traditional way including the paints they use and the way they mix them. Suspended on a platform hooked to a pulley system, they work ten to twelve hours at a time. They use levels, brushes, sketches, and wear safety harnesses in their airy studio on high. They face challenges. Scale, delicate lettering, the fear of dripping paint on someone, and that thing called gravity. You could say the work has its ups and downs. It’s risky. They only get to break the law of gravity once.
Just once I’d love to drive into a small town, one with one stoplight at the junction of dusty country roads and enter a Twilight Zone-like time warp that transports me to the past. I’d like to see a Norman Rockwellesque setting where a wall dog is standing on a platform painting a hardware store’s wall of old brick. He reaches down, gets his paint-splattered level, and makes a mark. Here is where the words will go. Ever so carefully he makes a white “B” and then a “U.” When he is done, a genuine Bull Durham ad glistens on the brick like new fallen snow. He lowers himself to the ground and admires his work. Then it’s time to load up and travel to the next town. In the decades to come his Bull Durham ad will age, crack, flake away, and fade. Like a weathered face, it’ll possess character. And our wall dog? All that lead paint did him no favors. He’ll move to a place called Obscurity and die.
Wall dogs did their thing, never meaning to leave latter-day folks picturesque ads. They sought highly visible locations from which their art could solicit business and up went their form of art. For those of us who love nostalgia, we owe wall dogs, a different breed of artist, a big thank you. And ghost signs? Consider them a window to the past.
- Images: All of the images in the story were taken by the author, Tom Poland.