A ghost sign is a hand-painted advertising sign that has been preserved on a building for an extended period of time.
History and preservation
Ghost signs are found around the world as well as Australia.
Ghost signs are also known as ‘fading ads’ and sometimes ‘brickads’. In many cases these are advertisements painted onto brick. Many of the advertisements are discovered after the demolition of an adjoining building that had not been there when the advertisement was originally pained. Throughout rural areas, old barn advertisements continue to promote defunct brands and quaint roadside attractions.
Ghost signs in Australia can be dated as far back as the 1880’s. The painters of the signs were called “wall dogs”.
In a New York Times article on ghost signs, Kathleen Hulser of the New York Historical Society, said, “The signs evoke the exuberant period of American capitalism. Consumer cultures were really getting going and there weren’t many rules yet, no landmarks preservation commission or organized community saying: ‘Isn’t this awful? There’s a picture of a man chewing tobacco on the corner of my street.'”
Ghost signs were originally painted with oil based house paints. The paint that has survived the test of time most likely contains lead which keeps it strongly adhered to the masonry surface. Ghost signs were often preserved through reprinting the entire sign since the colors often fade over time. When ownership changed, a new sign would be painted over the old one.
Conservators today are being asked to preserve the original signs rather than painting over them. New products for consolidation are available that structurally stabilize both the components of the paint and the masonry substrate. The website Preservation Science discusses research, pertinent to ghost signs, that went into preserving the paint on the exterior of the Building Museum in Washington DC. The historic Old Town District in Fort Collins, Colorado recently undertook a ghost sign rehabilitation project that was very successful for the community. A Coca-Cola sign from 1958 in Old Town was preserved and touched up to make it more legible. The conservation treatment saturated the original colors bringing back the intensity of the design. It also made the underlying signs more visible to the naked eye.