Ghost images remain from heyday of hand-painted outdoor advertising
When you think of an original work of art, the last thing that comes to mind is scouring the sides of buildings in the hopes of finding a one-off. Priceless treasures painstakingly created by artists are usually shielded from even the tiniest hint of destruction by myriad security and preservation measures that enforce an arm's length approach to admirers.
Rarely do connoisseurs take to the sidewalk to seek out a masterpiece.
Unless, of course, you're Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, which is home to nearly 4,000 items.
“Well, when I get on my soapbox, I've been known to say the only difference between commercial art and sign art is the number of zeros behind the dollar sign,” he says. “It ends up being a really fun way to learn American history.”
Although they are slowly fading into the background of our neighborhoods, it wasn't too long ago that brick served as the perfect palate for the advertising industry to make its mark with hand-painted signs that sang the praises of everything from tobacco to tax collectors.
“At one time, we had wall signs on every building on the North Shore — from the 16th Street Bridge to the West End,” says Warren Jones, a fourth-generation sign painter. His great-grandfather, Albert E. Jones, founded the A.E. Jones Sign Co. in 1897, which now occupies space on Tripoli Street in East Allegheny.
The history of the hand-painted sign dates back to the 1500s, when shop owners would advertise their services and wares via an identifiable object hanging above the storefront. According to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the proliferation of outdoor advertising peaked in the early to mid-1800s, when the first large American outdoor poster — more than 50 square feet — originated in Jared Bell's New York office where he printed posters for the circus. With the introduction of street railways, exterior advertising became de rigueur beginning in 1850 and, by the time the 19th century came to a close, there were approximately 300 small sign-painting and bill-posting companies operating at full tilt.
“The signs from the early 20th century really harken back to that earlier era of signage,” says Andy Masich, president of the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. “I love ghost signs because they are tangible reminders of the past and they're so subtle — they're there, but they're not there.”
Jennifer Baron, one of the editors of “Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania,” a full-color book showcasing the signs of our region, believes that link to the past is something that preservationists consider to be a tie that binds, especially for a city such as Pittsburgh, whose scenery is known for its man-made landmarks.
“Ghost signs, when you see them up close and from afar, they add to the topography as much as our bridges, stadiums and museums,” Baron says. “They add character — visually and symbolically. I love to see them when I'm driving into a city. It's one way I get to know the character of a new city.”
The process of hand-painting signs, which often took days, if not weeks, to complete, was an advertising medium that continued well into the 20th century before technological advances in printing began taking over beginning in the 1960s. A painter commissioned to create an original sign would sketch out a design and then charcoal an outline on the building before putting brush to brick.
Although some see the craftsmanship as a dying art soon to become obsolete, grassroots efforts are springing up across the country to encourage a resurgence in hand-painted signs and murals. But the push signifies an approach to something much greater than nostalgia. It spotlights the value placed on weaving together our history with the modern world.
“You can drive past them every day, and you can connect with people from 100 years ago” Masich says. “So they really are touchstones with the past.”
Mike Meyer, a sign painter for more than 30 years based in Mazeppa, Minn., is one of the organizers behind “Walldog Meets,” gatherings that typically bring together 120 to 160 painters possessing all levels of experience. The name “Walldog” became the popular way to refer to these craftsmen during the heydey of the hand-painted sign because of how they tended to “work like a dog” in conditions that often could easily be categorized as perilous. For Meyer, the opportunity to restore an original is also an opportunity to bring a wilted community back to life.
“Talk about transforming a town. (We) go into some small town that had nothing going for it and start repainting or doing faux old ads on the side of buildings, and then the towns become tourist attractions,” Meyer says. “We're trying to show culture and the way it affected people as well. It adds personality. (It) is not cookie cutter. It's always different, and that's what I think is misplaced today because everything is all same, same, same. A lot of people are getting tired of being so perfect. Signs now look like the ad of a magazine.”
The desire to pay homage to the past was one of the reasons why the Stamoolis Brothers Co. — a food importer and distributor in the Strip District, founded at the turn of the century by five Greek immigrant brothers — shied away from choosing a computer-generated billboard to advertise their services. Instead, a brilliantly visible and vibrant hand-painted sign can be seen on the side of the company's building at 2020 Penn Ave. According to owner Gus Stamoolis, the desire to attract the attention of customers meant more than embracing an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality.
“Going back to the history of our company, we're turn-of-the-century and steeped in tradition,” he says. “We do embrace the modern era, too, so that sign reflects and shows what we are. It's not a throwback, but that sign really impresses.”
And, while there doesn't seem to be a monetary value associated with a home or business whose exterior served as an artist's palette at some point in time, there's little doubt that many believe the emotional and aesthetic value is worth its weight in gold.
“Like beauty, ghost signs are in the eye of the beholder, and some people might pay more to have that sort of history on the side of their building,” Masich says. “We can't save everything, and we can't preserve everything, but I think we need to make case-by-case decisions regarding that. It really gives character to a community that's a piece of American life and history.”
Kate Benz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-8515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.