Adelaide’s Fading Brick Signs

These days, you’re just as likely to learn about that hot new pair of running shoes or sugar-free soft drink in a sponsored Facebook post or promoted tweet than you are by more conventional methods of advertising.

But long before social media – even before radio and TV – when brands and businesses wanted consumers to buy their products, the writing was on the wall.

Now, the fancy lettering is cracked and fading but ‘ghost signs’ still haunt many parts of Adelaide, on factory, shop and warehouse walls, sending out faint signals for staples such as tea, meat and tomato sauce.

Painted advertising in Australia dates back to the earliest days of European settlement and remained popular in cities and towns until as late as the 1980s.

“The 1980s was the big change when vinyl cutters came in,” Melbourne academic, former Whyalla boy and ghost sign enthusiast Dr Stefan Schutt says.

But unlike the ephemeral digital kind, many brick ads have survived, in some cases longer than the products and brands they were originally spruiking for.

Two striking examples, one for cough and cold tonic “Black Charger” - the other for rheumatic pain remedy Living Yeast - are beautifully preserved on the side wall of Red Door Bakery, in Croydon.

Owner Emma Grierson says the advertisements were restored by a previous landlord and are a real talking point for the business.

“Lots of people photograph it and even we have a family portrait against it,” Ms Grierson says.

“We have also been asked for some “wild yeast” in the early days, which of course we had, being a bakery,” she says.

“Didn’t dawn on us until the person left that they had read the sign and were probably trying to cure bronchitis! Who knows if it worked.”

Dr Schutt says interest in ghost signs has been growing in recent years, particularly in cities such as his, where urban development has put them under increasing pressure.

“There’s been this resurgence in interest in hand-painted, handmade things of all kinds so there’s been this kind of niche, hipster interest in signwriting.

“It’s in the UK and the US and especially with mobile phones and mobile cameras around people are madly taking photos of these things and uploading them to Flickr and Picasa and Instagram.

“There’s a whole thriving kind of community of people out there with an interest in it.

“There’s also a movie called Signpainter that’s been doing the rounds around the world for the last couple of years, there’s a book attached as well, it’s a US-based thing but it’s become really popular and it keeps selling out wherever it tours.”

He says there are fewer ghost signs in Adelaide than in cities such as Melbourne, a “boom bust” town that experienced periods of huge population growth and commercial expansion.

“Where there is signage (in Adelaide) it’s really in the Port area and that tends to be kind of Victorian, maybe because it was such a bustling hub of trade in the 1800s there.”

Dr Schutt has catalogued many of Adelaide’s remaining brick ads in a blog and also speaks on the topic at local historical society gatherings.

A self-confessed “nerd and explorer” his own interest in the subject was triggered by accident in 2012 when he made a chance find on a demolition site next to his office.

“I actually found the records of a signwriting company, with all the job sheets and mock-ups and this company existed from the early 1900s through to about 1960.

“And then this company Lewis and Skinner started doing the signage work for Robur Tea, which was ironically at one point owned by D & J Fowler, the Adelaide Company, you know, and Fowlers Lane, just off of North Terrace is named after them, they’ve still got a couple of ghost signs for Fowlers in that little laneway.

“So, I started seeing Robur Tea signs everywhere and from there discovered that there was this interest in these signs.”

Dr Schutt says while some people simply find the signs aesthetically interesting, for others they are powerful symbols of place, community, change, childhood and nostalgia.

“Some academics have talked about localism being something that can be quite aggressive, you know there’s a kind of NIMBY factor, people wanting to keep everything the way it was and not welcome change and use that as a way to exclude other people and other things happening in their neighbourhood.

“But at the same time, the other side of it is, you know rapacious sort of capitalism that wants to knock everything over because it’s got a profit motive.”

“There’s quite a few sign-writers around who lost their job and livelihoods around that time, and then after vinyl the whole digital revolution came in and wiped the rest of it out.”

He speaks about his own emotional ties with a billboard in his own community.

“There was a big wall sign in the street opposite where my kids go to school and it used to be a corner grocery and it had a really big Bushell’s sign about six feet tall by about the same wide and it’s actually a number of signs painted on top of each other over quite a few decades - so it was a bit of a community gathering place and the sign was quite an icon in the area.

“People used to refer to it and people would remember that shop when it was still a grocery before it turned into where someone lived - and then last year I went past it and the whole building had been knocked down and units put up there instead.

“I felt a real sense of loss. I mean I had no emotional connection with Bushell’s tea or with the signwriter, but because it was part of the neighbourhood you sort of felt a sense of loss, like a friend had gone or died or something.”

“There’s so many different levels of connections that people have, especially as social gathering places, whereas now people go to supermarkets - there’s that aspect, there’s the connection with the brands themselves.

“I think nostalgia gets a bit of a bad rap as well. People see it as kind of superficial and a bit shallow, and it can be, but I think there’s something deeper in there as well about that people need to connect with the place that they live in and also with their own history.”