Signs of Australia: Vintage signs from the city to the outback

IN this extract of the book Signs of Australia: Vintage signs from the city to the outback, Brady Michaels and Dale Campisi explore the importance of Australia’s fading, ageing signs.

SIGNS come and go. But the ones that remain are a visual record of Australian social history.

They tell us who we are and how we got here, and they preserve a history of commercial sign writing and typography too.

We’ve been looking for Australia’s vintage signs for about a decade.

It started with a couple of Melbourne icons: Skipping Girl, a top-hatted pig and the Nylex Clock.

We knew there must be signs like these all over Australia and we wanted to see them.

So we set off on a road trip around the country.

In our search for vintage signs we drove more than 40,000 kilometres and visited thousands of villages, towns and cities in all eight of Australia’s states and territories.

We didn’t always know what we’d find or even where to look.

But sure enough, there they were: a beer-drinking emu in outback Queensland; an entire shed advertising Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills in a paddock on the outskirts of Maitland; the gothic- script neon masthead for the West Australian newspaper that now adorns a wall at a Bob Hawke-themed bar in Perth; a four-storey dingo on the side of an old flour mill in Fremantle.

Most are what sign hunters know as ghost signs, often ads for old brands and products like Velvet Soap, Resch’s Lager, Kalgoorlie Bitter and myriad local soft drink companies.

They belong primarily to the advertising age before the internet.

The term “ghost sign” most commonly refers to handpainted signs on brick walls — the work of sign writers.

Sign writing has become a niche art, having largely been replaced by printed decals.

In the process, advertising’s production has been made quicker and more efficient, but has lost its handmade quality.

We walk and drive past them every day.

But unless you’re looking out for them, you might not even notice they’re there — a product of our ability to filter out irrelevant visual “noise”.

Some ghost signs are just a shadow of their former selves, visible only in the right light or weather and from a certain vantage point.

They’re rarely, if ever, heritage listed and under constant threat from demolition.

But this book isn’t only about old signs painted on brick walls. The signs of Australia observe all kinds of materials and making techniques.

New vintage-inspired neon signs are lighting up across the country, each competing for business on city streets and back alleys.

These are the vintage signs of the future, if they last that long.

Taken together, the signs of Australia tell us about who we are.

They tell us where we’ve been, what we eat and drink and what we wash ourselves with.

They reveal the boom and bust of mining towns and the changing styles and trends of Australian tourism and consumerism.

They tell us the 1956 Melbourne Olympics were celebrated with signs across the country, that we used to love playing squash, and that we’ve always loved beer, baked goods, hot coffee and fish and chips.

This book is a selection of some of our favourite signs, from the well-known and perfectly preserved to the neglected and long forgotten.

It‘s also a celebration of typography, design, advertising and the makers of these signs, past and present.

The signs of Australia are full of local character and regional flavour and we hope you enjoy looking at them as much as we did finding them.

We look forward to finding more.

This is an edited extract from Signs of Australia: Vintage signs from the city to the outback by Brady Michaels and Dale Campisi, NewSouth Publishing. 

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