Monday, June 22, 2009

Ghost Signs: Part 3

Location: Grayville, IL

Ghost Signs are prevalent not only in Arkansas, but all over the country. Whenever I'm driving anywhere, I'm always looking for signs. This sign in Illinois is still a mystery to me. I can make out the words "Mercury," "Book" and maybe "Job," but the rest is confusing. This sign's days are numbered.

But what I'd really like to talk about are the ghost signs I saw in Maine.

Location: Old Port, Portland

In Maine, the ghost signs aren't ghosts! Well, that's not entirely accurate. There isn't a paper company in that building, nor do I expect has there been in many years. But the sign has clearly been maintained and loved, just like almost everything with artistic value in Maine. Portland had the vast majority of the ghost signs I saw in Maine, but some other cities delivered as well.

Location: Camden

This is just the faint ghost of a ghost sign. Camden is a beautiful coast town close to Mount Battie, from the top of which Edna St. Vincent Millay derived the inspiration for the opening lines of her famous poem "Renascence."

Location: Rockland

When we got off of the Maine Eastern Railroad (more on that later) into Rockland, we did a good bit of exploring its excellent downtown. The above ghost sign seems to either be undergoing repainting, or the whole building is and the sign will soon be obscured. Millay was born in Rockland.

Location: Bath

My changing interests are reflected in this specimen, since when I actually lived in Bath I never noticed it. Now it's one of my favorites.

Location: Portland

Can you see this one? Trained eyes might notice the colossal "S" peeking out at the very top of this building that was probably once a factory. Note that all the windows are blocked in with cement now. When we walked around the perimeter, I noticed an artist has his studio in a small part of this building. Oh, Maine.

For the rest of this entry, I give you an exhaustive gallery of ghost signs found in Portland's old port. There are too many to give individual attention to each, so enjoy the pretty pictures. As always, click to enlarge!

Location: Also Portland

As a coda, I'd mention that while most modern wall-signage is reduced to the above sort of thing, a group in New York is doing something entirely different. A commentor on my previous post pointed me towards his blog, Ghost Signs, in which he and he fellows track down the signs in the United Kingdom. He also linked me to a video of the group I mentioned painting their own (classy) ads on buildings in NYC, streamed below.

So now when you're walking down your favorite downtown avenue and you see a fading ad for Nehi soda or Optima Flour, you can think of your old pal Luke.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Ghost Signs: Part 2

Location: Corner of Scott & Second Street, Little Rock

"When asked how he managed to be happy every day, Mr. Adair would simply say, 'I trick my mind into thinking I'm having fun.' This attitude adjustment always applied, even to those times when he found himself hoisted high above ground in 100-degree heat."

The above quote is from Bob Adair, a lifelong painter of wall signs. I read the interview in Ghost Signs of Arkansas after Jenna surprised me with it one night (she had planned on presenting it to me after the wedding, but I talked about buying it too much, so I got it sooner. Yay, persistence!). These painters were commonly known as "Wall Dogs," and this particular dog began his career in 1924, ending it sometime in the 90s.

Location: Sheridan

The wall dog's job was one of precision. Folks like Adair would often travel in pairs, with one dog laying down a framework in charcoal, and the second filling out the skeleton with colored paints. The above sign was in a particularly bizarre location, lurking in a back alley home now only to bits of broken glass and plastic lawn chairs. I spotted it from far away and hiked over the cracked concrete to get to it. Later, I felt like I needed some ice cold refreshment. Looks like those ads still work this many years later...

Location: Batesville

Speaking of refreshment, this sign in downtown Batesville was totally restored by some modern wall dogs in 1988 at the behest of the city. The 20 years since then have worn it down, letting some of the layers underneath peek through. If you squint, you can make out the phrase "Relieves Headaches" at the upper right. This is hilarious, but I'll remind you that extra-strength Excedrin actually contains caffeine as one of its active ingredients. Unfortunately Coke is still just about as inept at curing migraines as it is curing thirst. That didn't stop me from drinking some on the afternoon I snapped that picture, though.

Location: Hot Springs

The thing I love the most about these signs is that they are never tacky. I'm sure someone out there might argue with me over that, but I haven't seen a tacky one yet. The text is perfectly aligned, it's clear and legible, beautiful, classy and artistic. There's no papyrus or comic sans or monotype corsiva. And when the text isn't perfectly aligned, it's endearing instead of annoying. The artists were skilled.

"One such skill, according Mr. White [another wall dog], is the ability to judge scale and proportion well enough to start at any point in the lettering or graphic and paint the sign to fit the space. To prove himself to a skeptical client, he once had to paint lettering for the word 'Solarcaine' backwards, from right to left, on a large billboard."

Location: Hot Springs

As a last image in today's entry, here's one of my all-time favorite signs. This one has just about everything on it, from giant 3-d letters to Coca-Cola to outdated prices to long-gone businesses. The box in the upper right advertises a "saloon," which is worth an entire time machine in itself. The phantom of the word "rooms" haunts the very top of the display, bringing me to muse on what kind of folk populated the rooms in the first half of the 20th century. And looming behind the whole picture is the colossal, cryptic "SELZ," that could really be just about anything.

Next, we'll travel outside of Arkansas to see what ghosts other states might offer.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ghost Signs: Part 1

All right! It's time to dust this little blog off and talk about one of my favorite things in the world of time fishing: ghost signs.

Location: Beebe

The first time I heard about ghost signs was when I encountered this book. I'm not actually sure where it came up, but somehow I was linked to it on Amazon and next I found it our local Hastings, beat up and evidently returned but still toting a hefty $20 price tag. For this reason I didn't leave the store with the book, but I did sit on the floor then and there and went through the book, cover to cover.

Being left-handed causes me to flip through books backwards, so I didn't actually do much reading that time. Mostly I just gaped at the pictures, looking for signs I might have seen before on my trips. I did, however, gather the idea behind ghost signs. They were large, painted advertisements created generally between 1900 and the 1950s (so at the same time most classy things were starting to disappear in America). In those old days, the signs were positively ubiquitous. They were painted on the highest buildings in town so everyone could see them.

Location: Bald Knob, Market Street, across from the MoPac depot

As the years went by and advertisers started turning elsewhere to cheaper options, the signs were left to fade. Sometimes, as in the above case, older signs become visible beneath the most recent ones as the paint erodes. The "war bonds" callout dates the sign easily, and the phrase "barber shop" affords an identity to this otherwise vacant and unmarked building. The structure's other side displays the text "White Way Cafe," revealing another persona.

Location: Batesville

Sometimes the signs are located in areas which don't really seem logical now. The above sign was on the back of a building on Main Street, advertising Optima Flour to predatory wasps and employees taking smoke breaks. But the positioning suggests that that area was once a high-traffic and high-priority zone. It also suggests that a product called "Optima Flour" existed at some point.

Location: Batesville

Here is an example of a ghost sign displayed at a tall vantage point. Anyone trotting down Batesville's Main Street in 1920 would see clearly that someone named "Hail" owned a Dry Goods shop in that building. It's the equivalent of seeing "McDonald's, Exit 92, 2 miles ahead on the right" on I-40, except this sign was beautifully hand-painted by a person instead of laser-printed and mass-produced by a corporation. Sorry, a little bitter.

Location: Batesville

For my last entry in our intro to ghost signs, we have one of my favorite types. Occasionally when a building is being renovated, or burns down, or is otherwise removed, one of these old signs is revealed, at least for a while. The Landers Theater, one of two beautiful old theaters in downtown Batesville, is currently being renovated and being made into the home of a Fellowship Bible Church (yeah, weird, but I guess it is Arkansas). When one of the walls was torn down, it revealed the massive sign seen above. Signs of this size rarely still exist on buildings, usually having been painted over or otherwise removed. This one is positively enormous, covering most of the side of the neighboring building, and is definitely advertising something which would cost a lot more than $3.50 these days. What that product is, I'm not sure.

So that's part one of our three-part discussion of ghost signs. I find these everywhere, and I always get really happy when I see them, so expect to hear a lot more. Next time: Wall Dogs!