Through the last 12 years as a self taught photographer, I have shot many subjects ranging from all-girl roller derby action to “warts and all” portraiture to life on the Meramec River near my home in Fenton, Missouri. One of my favorite things is photographing the deterioration in blighted communities, so you could say I am an urban artist. On Saturday, December 28th, 2013 it was 60 degrees and there was some interesting cloud cover. A perfect day to explore. I drove along North Broadway and Cass Avenue and found many blighted buildings, some of them probably not long for the wrecking ball. Whenever I am on these missions I always keep an eye out for the painted sign for my good friend William Stage. Some of the signs in this grouping don’t fit the criteria that William has set for this website, but due to my post-processing talents and painterly eye, he has been kind enough to include them all.
As a serious photographer I have only shot digital. I currently use a Canon 5D Mark III with a variety of lenses. I edit my photos in Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom using a variety of plugins. Most of my images are processed in High Dynamic Range, which is a technique of using special software to blend multiple exposures of the the same image. The results provide more detail, shadows and highlights, which at times can give an illustrated look. This process works extremely well on ghost signs, their text faded to near-obscurity, as it brings out detail not seen in a normal photograph.
Thanks for your interest and enjoy, Ferd
Mound City Buggy Co. N. Broadway St. Louis 2013
A large, loquacious sign wall located just north of downtown, this one reflects the changing times in transportation—from making horse-drawn buggies to making pistons for early automobiles. By 1900, the Mound City Buggy and Auto Co. had offices variously located at 2007 Locust Street and on S. Broadway between Papin and Chouteau. The extant building on N. Broadway, pictured here, must have been the company’s manufacturing plant.
Crescent Planing Mill Co. North 9th Street St. Louis 2013
Due to a downturn in the construction industry, Crescent Planing closed its doors in the spring of 2012, after being in business 122 years. The building is now for sale.
Central Waste Material Co. N. Broadway St. Louis 2013
Central Waste Material is currently in the business of scrap metal. They sort, process and resell all manner of brass, copper, steel, iron and aluminum.
Swaine Manufacturing O’Fallon Street St. Louis 2013
Swaine Manufacturing is located just north of the Edward Jones Dome. In 1897, when the company was located at 207 Chestnut Street, Fred J. Swaine was making presses and sheet metal tools. Their punch press line was acquired by Alva Allen Industries in 1963.
Cass Ave. near 14th Street St. Louis 2013
“Why Not Earn 3% On Your Savings?” This blighted building was likely a Savings & Loan in its glory days, and later converted to a Chop Suey joint. Both enterprises are long gone.
Standard Stamping Co. N. Broadway St. Louis 2013
This long, four-story building with beautiful arched brick windows once housed the Standard Stamping Company, Biederman Furniture Company, and the American Surplus Warehouse.
Falstaff Brewery N. 20th Street St. Louis 2013
Editor’s Note. This is what the very informative website Built St. Louis has to say about the commercial buildings in this part of St. Louis: North of downtown, Broadway runs past a wide variety of industrial and warehousing buildings dating from the turn of the century. Interspersed between them are increasingly rare surviving residential buildings, holdouts from this area’s history as an integral part of the Old North St. Louis and Hyde Park neighborhoods. Interstate 70 effectively bisected these neighborhoods in the 1960s, to the point that the original boundaries of Old North are no longer commonly counted as part of the neighborhood.
Let me introduce a colleague and friend from “across the pond.” Sam Roberts has not only done groundbreaking work in the documentation of wall signs throughout the UK, he has induced an intrepid band of wall sign enthusiasts, cameras at the ready, to help him in his quest to create a comprehensive survey of these fading and charming ads, “hidden in plain sight,” as Sam likes to say. Take a look at ghostsigns.co.uk.com and you will agree that his efforts are nothing less than breathtaking in scope. If that isn’t enough then follow the link on The Painted Ad home page to one of Sam’s videos, titled “Ghost Signs: Booze and Fags.” Fags being Brit slang for cigs, squares, smokes, coffin nails, butts, etc. If ever you’re in London, think about signing up for one of Sam’s Ghost Sign Walking Tours – Cheers, Wm. Stage
Sam was kind enough to provide the following images along with accompanying captions as well as this short introduction:
Since noticing my first ghostsign in London, UK, in 2006 my interest has grown into a deep fascination, some might say obsession. My work has developed over this time with the most significant output being the History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive. This brought together dozens of photographers to capture almost 1,000 locations across the UK and Ireland. The archive continues to grow, as does the number of articles and pieces of research on the Ghostsigns blog which has now been running for over six years.
More recently I have published the first Ghostsigns calendar and am now running walking tours for visitors to London. These allow people to see ghostsigns ‘in the flesh’ which is how they were always meant to be viewed.
For me, ghostsigns are pieces of local, social, advertising and craft history, fading each day, and often hidden in plain sight. My work is directed towards raising their profile and, hopefully, their perceived value in the eyes of the property owners who ultimately decide their fate. I do this through photography, research, archiving, writing and publishing. I continue to enjoy the surprises that come through this work, most recently the first mirrored ghostsign that I’ve ever seen.
Courage Beer – Redcross Street London SE1
This sign is positioned for high visibility from railway tracks coming out of London Bridge Station. The building was recently bought for 3 million pounds, making this one of the world’s priciest ghost signs. When in London and visiting certain grand old pubs, Americans, in particular, enjoy calling out to the bartender, “Give me a glass of Courage.”
Daren Bread – Stoke Newington Church Street London N16
What remains of this sign was protected for many years by another sign mounted on the wall. It is an example of “privilege” advertising with the baker’s name, seen near the top, likely Raleigh’s.
Warings / Wilton Factories – Shepperton Road London N1
Located on the former factory, this is quite a large one for the UK.
Deane & Co. Chemists – The Pavement London SW4
This large sign may have been painted in the last 20 years or so given its appearance. The chimney pots seen at the roofline add to the charm of the sign. And yes, The Pavement is the actual name of the road where the ad is found.
S. Errington Furniture – Dulwich Road London SE24
The missing word on the bottom line would be “Exchanged.”
Redfern’s Rubber Heels – Grant Street London N1
The script along the bottom is the company’s slogan, “Makes Walking A Pleasure.” This sign was “revealed” in its entirety after some more recent painted advertising was cleaned off the building during renovation.
Black Cat Cigarettes – Dingley Road London EC1
The Carreras Tobacco Co. introduced Black Cat in 1904 as one of the first machine-made cigarettes made in Britain. The brand was also instrumental in early cigarette promotions, which have a rich and prolific history in that country. Upon purchase, smokers were given a free stamp album. Stamps were found in every pack of Black Cat and small fortunes were offered for the best completed albums. In this ad, we see that you can buy “10 for 6d,” which is six old English pence.
Here are some new wall sign discoveries in my travels in Missouri and Illinois during this Year of Our Lord 2013. Some are old ghosts and some newly exposed. Comments welcome.
_hester _owell _lothier Red Bud, IL 2013
Intriguing sign on the side of a health food on Main Street Red Bud. As one may see, the older brick ad has been saved and actually framed against an application of new brick. However, the first letters of the three words have been omitted in the process. It’s a safe bet that the first name is Chester and he was a Clothier, but the surname? It may have been Lowell, Powell, Dowell, or even Howell. The sign’s painter signed his named “McMullen”; perhaps he knows.
Monogram Whiskey Kansas City, MO 2013
Large wall sign in downtown KC executed and likely still maintained by Arbuckle Signs. The Rieger Hotel opened in 1915 and was home to traveling salesmen, railroad workers, and assorted characters during Kansas City’s formative years. Note that the distiller of Monogram Whiskey has the same surname as the hotel.
Lee & Louise Town & Country Restaurant
Cobden, IL 2013
Cobden is an old-timey railroad town in Southern Illinois and Coca Cola certainly dominates this corner with three different types of signage.
3-V Cola Smithton, IL 2013
Re-do of an older ad on the side of Mueth’s Tavern in the hamlet of Smithton. The retro sign was executed in July 2011 by Courtney Louveau and Olivia von Boker. The 3 Vs stood for vim, vigor and vitality. The cola was the first to come in a 16-ounce bottle and thus the slogan, “You Get a Third More.”
Hyde Park Beer South St. Louis 2013
Another “reveal” at the corner of Morganford and Juniata just south of Tower Grove Park. This is the fifth sign for Hyde Park Beer in the City of St. Louis of which I am aware.The brewery, located in the Hyde Park neighborhood in North St. Louis, operated from 1876 to 1958. The beer’s slogan: “Seldom Equaled, Never Excelled.”
Otto Speichinger’s Tavern Millstadt, IL 2013
Well-preserved west-facing sign located at E. Washington and S. Breese in bucolic Millstadt. It’s only slightly odd that a soft drink company would pay for advertising on a tavern. The tavern still operates with a popular fish fry stand on the outdoor patio; however, the sound of blasting pins is no longer heard in the 4-lane bowling alley upstairs.
Poke-A-Dot Lounge South St. Louis 2013
Old saloon sign exposed at the corner of Jefferson and Cherokee sometime in October, 2013. Note the pile of clay shingles [or whatever they're called] up against the building where they have been chipped off the facade.
Multi-layered Sign Cherokee Street South St. Louis 2013
Large, old sign with several ads jumbled up and run together, although nothing is legible except the word “Chew” at the top of the wall. When I figure this one out I will let you know.
Detail, Multi-Layered Sign Cherokee Street South St. Louis 2013
The brick wall was – and still is – the ideal location for a business owner to tell the world his name and trade. Throughout the City of St. Louis, one may still see evidence of this most basic and succinct form of advertising.
Undertaker – Embalmer
Manchester Ave. So. St. Louis ca. 1980
Partly obscured sign on second story of building in what is now called The Grove. Who was the undertaker? Only his customers know, and that secret has gone to the grave with them. Photoshop enhanced by Robert “Ferd” Frank in 2011.
J. Sellmann – Tailor
Potomac Ave. at Grace So. St. Louis 1979
Many small businesses such as this tailor shop had their names painted on the sides of their buildings, the merchant simply wanting to proclaim his existence. Think of them as large-scale, three-dimensional business cards.
Schacht & Cook Horseshoers
2127 Cass Ave. No. St. Louis 1980
The building long gone in 2013, not much is known about this particular farrier on the near north side.
G. Morman – Merchant Tailor & Draper
Martin Luther King at Jefferson St. Louis 1980
“Draper” is an antiquated term for a wholesaler or retailer of cloth, mainly for clothing. A draper may also operate as a haberdasher. Drapers were a once-prominent trade guild. Rather arbitrarily, I am dating this sign ca. 1912.
Dry Goods Hosiery
Bates Ave, at I-55 So. St Louis 1980
This unidentified former store seems to have been a mercantile that offered sewing services. Signs such as this cause one to ponder times past when people actually went to a shop to have their buttons covered.
Steve Gilmore – Plumber
Jefferson at Pestalozzi So. St. Louis 2013
Leaky faucets, stopped-up drains, broken spigots – Gilmore the Plumber at your service.
Hats and shoes have always been staples of the St. Louis economy. Indeed, the old expression about the St. Louis Browns was, “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League.” What is now The Washington Avenue Historic District, commonly called “the Loft District”—an area bounded by Delmar Avenue to the north, Locust Street to the south, 8th Street on the east and 18th Street on the west—was once known as the Garment District. According to the civic organization Downtown St. Louis, “From the late 19th century until the end of World War II, the St. Louis Garment District was second only to New York as an American center for fashion design and clothing manufacturing.” Today, most of the historic warehouses and commercial buildings along Washington Avenue—large multistory edifices of brick and stone construction with names like The Knickerbocker, Bee Hat, and International Shoe—have been renovated into contemporary lofts, bars and restaurants, and retail shops. Yet, evidence of these former shops, warehouses and factories, in the form of signage, still remains.
King Bee Hats / Wrigley’s Spearmint Pepsin Gum
1709 Washington Avenue – Loft District 2011
Photo: Robert “Ferd” Frank
Likely the largest existing wall sign in St. Louis, this beauty sits on the west side of what was originally the King-Brinsmade Mercantile Company and is now the King Bee Lofts. Several fading ads adorn the vast brick face, some of them partially overlapping others, having been painted at different times. From top to bottom,ad copy reads “King Bee Hats – King-Brinsmade Merc. Co.” “Wrigley’s Spearmint Pepsin Gum – Trade Mark Registered – The Flavor Lasts” and, within the pointing arrow, “Buettner’s – Seventh and Washington – Home Furnishings – Arrow Stamps.” To the right of Buettner’s is a barely legible ad for “Anti-Kamnia Tablets – Ask For A-K Tablets.” For chronological reference, the Anti-Kamnia Chemical Company made its appearance around 1890 in St. Louis. The trademark was registered that year, but the codeine-laced medicine for treating “Worry” [nervousness] was never patented. The company marketed its product aggressively, sending advertising postcards and samples to doctors and other possible customers. During the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis Anti-Kamnia was still going strong, but was to virtually collapse with the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Bill of 1906.
Hats 49 Cents
North St. Louis 1987
Found on the side of a home on a quiet side street, here is an example where the picture overwhelms the ad copy. It looks to be a fedora and whenever it was that a decent [we hope] hat cost 49 cents is when this sign dates to.
Allen Market Lane Apartments / Brown’s Five Star Mark
12th and Russell – Soulard
Wow! Shoes and hats made in the same building, but at different times. Known affectionately as the Mexican Hat Factory due to the sombreros made by the International Hat Factory in the 1950s, this four-story brick building was built in 1904 to house a division of the Brown Shoe Co. Purchased in 1980 by developers McCormack Baron Salazar, the old factory was converted to more than 100 affordable apartments available to seniors. This sign, and another one identical to it, were commissioned by Brown Shoe and probably date to a time before 1910.
Red Diamond Overalls
Lemp at Crittenden – Benton Park 1986
I photographed this sign in the 1980s and again 30 years later when the Knopf Market was long gone. It is a double ad, one for Red Diamond Overalls, once made here in St. Louis, and whose delightful slogan was “The Man who wears Red Diamonds wears a smile that won’t come off.” The other sign lettered on this wall, and taking up far less space, says only “Lemp Leader Sells.” I can find nothing on this product, and even Vincent Hromadka, grocer-owner at nearby Vincent’s Market for the last 50 years, hadn’t heard of it. The building sits on the corner of Lemp and Crittenden, not far from the former Lemp Brewery, so it could be a variety of beer. Or maybe not.
Red Diamond Overalls Advertising Cover
Handsome advertising cover postmarked April 29, 1913 when a stamp was but 2 cents.
Cherokee Row South St. Louis 2011
Vestige of an old sign on the brick face of what is now a photography studio. On the other side of the door a similar sign reads “Shoe Repairing While U Wait.”
OK Hatchery / Hay Grain Flour and Feed
Kirkwood, Missouri 2011
Stripping paint from this building at 111 W. Argonne Drive, near the Kirkwood train station, revealed vintage commercial signs: Coulter Feed Co. with the Purina Checkerboard pattern and a Bull Durham Tobacco sign on the side. The building dates to 1912 and was built as a feed and grain operation with a drive-through doorway in the center for wagons . When architectural illustrator Bob Whitesitt bought the building in 1987, he decided to “take it back to the red brick.” He hired Galati Building Cleaning and what looked at first to be a routine job turned into a restoration project. “There were six signs over the Bull Durham,” said Whitesitt. “Most of it was painted on with enamel so the reds and blacks came off with the application of Prosilco, but the whites stayed because they were done with lead-based paint. The difficulty was in deciding how far to go with it. Each time we’d see something new we’d have to decide whether to stop or keep on going. But when we got to the Bull Durham [sign] I said ‘Stop!’”
Rolling Ridge Nursery / Henry Schultz Feed Co.
Old Webster – Webster Groves, Missouri 2012
The trademark Purina Checkerboard design, around for more than a century now, is instantly recognizable on the wall of this former feed store on N. Gore in Old Webster. The information within the checkerboard is slightly varied in two locations: the south face and west face of the building. Both areas indicate the name of the business: Hy. Schultz Feed Co [Hy. being a shortened form of Henry]. In addition, the south facing sign reads “HORSE DAIRY POULTRY,” while the west facing sign says “FEEDS IN CHECKERBOARD BAGS.” Below and outside of the sign proper is the name, Commercial Sign Co., along with something one rarely, if ever, sees on a wall sign and that is a record of the exact date the sign was painted: “10-9-36.”
Built in 1892, the structure has always been either a feed store or a nursery. Like the OK Hatchery, this building also had a drive-through doorway in the center for wagons. Henry Schultz ran it as a feed store until 1953, at which time he sold it to his employees, and it has been under one ownership as Rolling Ridge Nursery since 1959. The signs were exposed in the 1980s when the building was being worked on. This generated attention and before long the Webster Groves Historic Preservation Commission weighed in: Because it was historic and in an historic district, the sign was not to be obliterated or altered in any way. Of course, the owners of Rolling Ridge Nursery didn’t want to paint over the old signs—Henry Schultz being a relative and all—but they didn’t anticipate the restrictions brought on by their discovery. Zoning ordinances say a business is allowed only so much signage, and this old sign from the previous business counted toward their square-foot allowance. Thus, they had to accept a smaller-than-desired Rolling Ridge Nursery sign, and they had to refrain from making certain planned structural changes. Said Rolling Ridge VP Don Baumstark, “We even had to fight [the Historic Preservation Commission] to be allowed to put in our electric sign.” But Baumstark’s tone is not rueful. Despite the imposed restrictions or perhaps partly because of them, the charming nursery and garden shop has been going strong for 53 years and counting.
There was a time when Tobacco Road ran through St. Louis. Toward the end of the 19th century, St. Louis was the largest processor of pipe and chewing tobacco in the United States. According to an industry periodical, Connorton’s Tobacco Brand Directory of the United States, St. Louis was number one in tobacco-producing cities for the year 1887 with an output of 40,284,675 pounds. The runner up was Jersey City, followed by Baltimore, Chicago, and Durham, NC. Local manufacturers and processors responsible for this superlative included but were not limited to the John Weisert Tobacco Company, the Christian Peper Tobacco Company, the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company and its predecessor, the Drummond Tobacco Company.
The John Weisert Tobacco Company, located at 1120 to 1132 South 6th Street, produced smoking tobacco and plug cut under scores of labels including Orphan Boy, Big John, Granulated 51, Harp Plug Cut —“Smoke or Chew”—and the felicitously-named Joysmoke, sold as tobacco for cigarettes, cigars or the pipe. Founded in the 1850s, Weisert Tobacco operated until the late 1980s under the helm of the founder’s great-grandson, Walter Weisert, and until the end was the last remaining tobacco company in Missouri. The once-flourishing Christian Peper Tobacco Company, founded 1852, had their offices at 707 North First Street in Laclede’s Landing. This building, now the offices of the Metro Transit System, once stored the leaf for the company. Its plank floors were slanted so workers could roll large barrels of cured tobacco down toward waiting cargo ships on the Mississippi. In 1906, according to the Laclede’s Landing website, the company produced a series of racy cards for their Turkish brand Kadee Cigarettes, one of the first uses of artistically-posed nude models for advertising.
Industry giant Liggett & Myers had its massive processing plant at 4121 Folsom. For more than 100 years L & M made chewing tobacco, the flagship brand being Star Tobacco. The company also made many brands of cigarettes, including the popular Chesterfield, which they made from 1911 until 1998 at which time Phillip Morris took over. But Chesterfield cigarettes were around long before 1911. The Drummond Tobacco Company of St. Louis began making Chesterfield cigarettes in 1873. James T. Drummond was a successful plug tobacco manufacturer who had introduced Chesterfield, Cannon, and Drum cigarettes as a sideline. – Wm. Stage
Big John – 1120 S. 6th Street
In the year 2013, this wall sign has been around for at least a century, although I just recently noticed it driving along I-55 just south of Downtown St. Louis. Only the two words, but immediately I knew what it was—a pitch for Weisert Tobacco Company’s finest product. In the 1980s, I had done a magazine feature on tobacco manufacturing here and during that time I got to know Walter Weisert, a good man, partial to bib overalls, with an appreciation for the heritage he’d inherited. By that time, Weisert Tobacco, around since the 1850s, was the last remaining tobacco manufacturer in Missouri. Walter was painfully aware that his operation was dying, going the way of the streetcar and the icepick; he was down to one cigar maker, an old man with a constant half-chewed stogie jutting from his mug. The end was hastened one day when Walter fell while working on one of the floors and was seriously injured. Already up in age, he could no longer get around and that was the end of Weisert Tobacco.
Big John photo by Margaret Stage
Big John Tobacco Label circa 1920s – collection of Wm. Stage
Lonnie Tettaton is the maestro of wall signs in St. Louis, whether that sign is done from scratch, using either client’s or his own design, or it is one to be carefully “touched up”such as the historic Bull Durham Tobacco sign in downtown Collinsville, Illinois. Every journeyman signpainter has a helper, and Lonnie started his career as a helper at Kirn Sign Company in 1958. After three years at Kirn he struck out on his own and he has been painting signs all over the metro area ever since. Some of these signs are decidedly artistic and have either a retro-look such as the highly-visible Lemp Mansion wall mural seen on I-55 South, or done in the style of trompe l’oeil [“trick of the eye”] such as the large, mimetic Greek architecture mural at 7th and Locust Streets downtown. In the past, Tettaton has run a School of Lettering & Design, and his Nutwood Publishing Company has put out books on signs and sign making. His life as a signpainter is detailed in a memoir, The Great St. Louis Adventure.
A few years back, Lonnie lost a leg due to a fall from a ladder followed by complications from a series of failed operations. Yet, he remained active. Although his climbing-up-on-scaffolding days were over, he continued to take on sign work with the help of another signpainter. Now all that has changed. In November, 2012, when I phoned him for this interview he answered the call from a hospital bed. He had broken his hip, he said, offering the perfectly plausible explanation that “it’s hard to keep your balance with only one leg.” In a few months Lonnie will turn 76. We wish him a speedy recovery and the chance to create many more signs. Meanwhile, here is a glimpse of his early life as a walldog.
“I was just out of high school, selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopedias, which wasn’t too good, and then I had a chance to get on as a helper at Kirn Sign. I had always been interested in lettering and signs and posters. I was taking commercial art at Hadley Tech [Hadley Technical High School], and I would ride the street car to school down Grand Avenue. All the storefronts had signs, and I thought that would be a good thing to get into.
“Helpers did a lot of the menial work. We coated billboards before they would be painted. We would clean billboards and neon signs, paint this or that. Kirn Sign made a lot of patterns for neon signs and plastic signs and your lettering had to be perfect. If a customer was going to spend a lot of money for a nice sign then you can’t have any mistakes in the lettering. You had to make it look professional. Later on, after I’d been there a while, I was making paper patterns for all those signs.
“After three years I broke away and went off on my own. I went out on the streets hustling for business. I picked up some billboard work and anything else that came my way. I was hungry for experience. You take a job and then you figure out how to do it. I had some tough ones, but I couldn’t quit. There were times I had to think about it and wonder what am I doing this for, but then I would just go ahead and hit it straight on and figure out how to work it.”
Every novice needs a mentor.
“There was an old-time signpainter, E.C. Matthews, who had his shop on Cass Avenue. I would go by there and ask questions and he threw me a little job once in a while. Matthews was a legend among the old school signpainters. He had even written books on the subject that many of us carried around. One was called Signs Up-To-Now 18 Easy Lessons and another was How To Paint Signs and Sho Cards. I got to know him and listened to his stories. He had a lot of stories to tell. He had three rooms in a four story building there on Cass. He had a coal stove in the front room and he would build a nice fire in the morning and stoke it well and it would last him all day long. That front room was his studio. He slept in the middle room and the back room was for storage. He would eat most of his meals out. He didn’t have a telephone. If someone wanted a sign painted they would drop by and catch him in. People brought trucks and there were all kinds of signs to be painted. Whatever came along, he would do it. He would letter their trucks out on the street on in the backyard.”
“He liked to hang around the shop and he was reluctant to take on a job that would take him away from there. He taught me gold leaf, and here’s a story about that. Back then, I would take any work I could get, whether or not I was confident that I could actually do it. I mean, there were so many different types of signs. Well, I got this contract to do a gold leaf job at a supply company on 23rd and Washington. They wanted their emblem in the middle of this nice, big window along with a couple of gold stripes and some lettering. See, I’d just heard about gold leaf, I’d never done it, and I went to Matthews and told him that I got this job and if he would help me I would split the pay with him. It was a snowy, slushy day and he said, ‘You aren’t going to get me out on a day like this, but I’ll show you how to do it.’ So he goes through all of the steps of gold leaf preparation. He got out the gelatin capsule and he boiled it in water, then he strained it off into a little jar. We used a window from his studio. He made a pattern and put it on the outside of the window, then he applied the gold leaf and went to lettering—you know, you do it in reverse, the letters.
“So, while I had it it fresh on my mind, I left his shop and went to the jobsite. Like I said, it was a nasty, dreary day and if the windows are cold they’re going to sweat and the gold leaf may not stick. Well, I took a piece of cardboard and fanned the window to keep it from sweating up, and when it dried I went ahead and did the lettering like he showed me. The next day I went back to see him and he asked how did the gold leaf job turn out. I said that it turned out pretty good. He said, ‘Well, it’s a good thing that you didn’t know you couldn’t do that, because when the weather’s bad like that, it’s bad for gold leaf, too.’ So, it’s a good thing that I didn’t know what I was doing, because if I did I’d have probably never tried to do it.”
Where was your studio at that time?
“It was in the basement of an old building on 13th and Monroe. North City. It had been a coal shed and I painted signs there. I was getting to be pretty independent.”
You had your own equipment?
“Yeah, when I first went into business I had to get a stage and the falls and the ladders and so forth. I had a truck, an old Chevy pickup—an older model, maybe a ’48.”
Which job early on really helped you turn the corner?
“Marx Hardware on 14th Street. It’s still there today, and run by Steve Marx. But this was 55 years ago, when Steve’s grandfather had it. He had a sign that had been there for decades so it needed to be repainted. Then there was Al’s Auto Sales on North Florissant and Warren, not far from Marx Hardware. Al had a big wall up the street and he wanted a sign on it. A friend and I solicited him for the job, but he stopped short of hiring us. Al was one of those skeptical old Germans and he just wasn’t sure about us. Then we told him that we were working just over on 14th so he went over and looked at what we’d done and that did the trick. Al said that if anybody could do a job for old man Marx, then they were good enough for him.”
And all this time you are learning as you go?
“Yes, I am learning as I go. I made a lot of wall signs and at one time I had at least one sign on every block downtown. Back when it was a more commercial area with lots of stores and shops. There was plenty of business going on. It was a good thing, too, because I had gotten married and had a little baby.”
What preparation would you make in anticipation of a big job?
“After talking with the customer and getting a sense of what he wanted, I would go back to the shop and make a scaled sketch of what the sign was going to look like. Sometimes there was a pattern or a logo that the customer was particular about and I’d incorporate that into the layout. Then I’d go back to the customer, show him the sketch, exactly how the sign would look, and give him the price. If he liked it, then I got the job. Basically, I worked from a small two-dimensional scaled sketch to create the finished product.”
Did you have mechanical drawing in high school?
“No, I learned to do layouts while working at Kirn Sign Company. I learned to use a scale ruler and I learned a lot of ways that layouts may be done. That was good experience for me there, because those layouts had to be right on the money.”
You were feeling pretty good about yourself back then.
“Oh yeah, but it was a struggle. At one point I quit working for myself and went to Righty Electric over in Granite City, Illinois. They were doing neon and plastic signs as well as electrical contracts. We lived there in Granite City, just me and my wife and the baby in a little two-room flat. That fall, I got laid off. We took the last check and went to the Ozarks, had a little vacation. When we came back, I hit the streets, beating the bushes. I’d go out by day and hustle up work and at night, any work I might have gotten, I’d sketch it out on the kitchen table and it was just enough to skim by.
“My first big job back then was Merrill Moving and Storage, on Grand Avenue near Page. It was a huge sign that stretched across the building about 100 feet and it was about 40 to 50 feet high. The sign said ‘Merrill Moving and Storage’ and it was going to be lettered within a big arch. I had talked the owner into including that arch as part of the sign, but when I got up there I thought, ‘How in the hell am I going to put an arch all across that big building with 10 foot high letters?’ Now, I’m no whiz at geometry and I’m not very good at math, but I figured it out. I got a center line and made an arch and it turned out pretty good.”
Do you recall what you were paid for that job?
“It was fourteen hundred back in 1959 or 1960. I remember I went to meet the guy but just before I had burnt the side of my neck, spilled some scalding water on it. I get there and I am sweating and uncomfortable in his office. He asked me how much is it and I said, ‘Well, ah, about fourteen hundred.’ And he said, ‘Well, what is it—fourteen hundred or something else?’ And I said ‘Yeah, it is fourteen hundred.’ I learned right there that when you are giving someone the price, you don’t hesitate, here is the price. Write it on a slip of paper and hand it to him. Don’t be wishy washy thinking they won’t accept it or think that they will beat you down.”
You had some close calls while on the job.
“Oh, yeah, I had several of them. One time I had a rope break on the side of a water tower, a bubble type tank out in Lake St. Louis [St. Charles County]. This painting contractor wanted a Fleur De Lis and letters reading ‘Lake St. Louis’ on the water tower for everyone to see. He had a couple of guys go up and try to paint it and they totally screwed it up, so he came to me to straighten it out and finish it. I agreed, but when I got to the job I saw that his equipment was really old. He had a little half-inch rope and I told him that I don’t like the looks of that rope, but I went up and did the job anyway. I’d just gotten it finished and they were letting me down when that damn rope broke. We were using double-single rope pulleys and I was hitched up to that. I was choking all four lines when the rope broke. There was one big jerk and I dropped about 10 feet before I squeezed all of them together with both hands, the ropes. That slowed it down so I was able to make it down to the ground. They [the ground crew] were more nervous than I was. I figured I better go back up and take the rest of the rigging down, because it was bothering me. I thought maybe I would be afraid to climb again.”
But climb you did and heights became a part of your existence. Eventually, though, the odds caught up with you.
“I broke my feet and ankle. I was out at Parkway High School, doing graphics on a wall. I was up on a step-ladder, a 10 footer, and I slipped and fell and landed flat on my feet. I didn’t try to get up, I knew it was bad. Anyway, I went to the hospital and they did surgery and put plates and pins in my feet. About three years ago  it really started bothering me, all of that stuff had started working loose. So, they operated again and put a rod in my shin bone. They removed some of the old hardware and put in new plates and pins. I got a staph infection, which was resistant to everything they tried. The staph got into the bone and they had to take some bone out. After more operations, six I think, taking out meat and bone and metal, they couldn’t get rid of that staph and so they amputated from the knee down.
“It was a dangerous and high work I did for all of those years and never got hurt. Then I got hurt while on a step-ladder.”
Now, you’re back in the hospital.
“Yes, with only one leg it’s hard to keep your balance, so I fell and broke my hip. I was doing a window job out in Maplewood. It’s funny because the last couple years sign work had dropped off and then someone put my work on the Internet and all of a sudden I’m getting calls from people looking for hand lettering on windows, something I could do without being on a tall ladder, and now I’m screwed because of the fall.”
It is tough luck, but somehow you’ll overcome it. Last question: Think back, what was your reaction the first time you were called a walldog?
“Well, it fits because I like to get out and work on the walls. The big sign companies had two sets of workers, the commercial sign people usually got to stay inside the shop and do the clean, intricate work and the other bunch they’d send out on the dirty old walls. They’d get onto the rigging, climb over the firewall, slap paint everywhere—they’d go out on any job in all kinds of weather, they didn’t care. They called them walldogs. No, I didn’t mind being called a walldog, not at all. At least I knew I was in good company.”
“They were extremely fast with these big walls, but then many did nothing but walls. They had tricks the younger people hadn’t picked up.”
—Gus Holthaus, signpainter, Cincinnati
They were a rugged, resourceful lot with a dedication to the craft bordering on monomania They painted signs on walls, great and small, and they worked like dogs. So they were called wall dogs. As a group they embodied an eclectic mix of skills often associated with the draftsman, the chemist, the artist and even the acrobat.
In the first half of the 20th century wall dogs were legion. Probably the majority were employed by the major sign companies of the day—General Outdoor Advertising Co., the Thomas Cusack Co., the P.H. Morton Co., and the O. J. Gude Co. One contingent worked the brick-walled cities, while another ranged the countryside in search of virgin barns and prime walls in small towns.
The late Art Hunn was a veteran of many excursions into the American hinterland of the 1920s, when he made a living painting wall signs and bulletins. In 1983, I spoke with Art Hunn, then 82 and an administrator with the Painter’s District Council No. 2 here in St. Louis. His recollection of life as a signpainter stretched back seven decades to that day in 1916 when he signed on as an apprentice with the Thomas Cusask Co.
“Each spring as many as fifteen two-man crews would go out on the road three or four months at a time,” Art began. “We’d go into a town, and back then the Williams Company had lots of gas and oil signs leased, so we’d paint bulletins on filling station lots.” By 1924, Hunn and his partner were driving around Illinois, Missouri and Iowa in an “old broken-down Dodge,” punctuating scenic vistas with signs of the times—Bull Durham Tobacco, Pillsbury Flour, and Coca-Cola. Each crew, said Art, was expected to complete a sign a day.
And pay? It wasn’t enough, said Art. But there was always moonlighting. “A few of us,” he offered, would pick up a little extra money doing what we called snaps, just a custom job on our own time. It was usually something like painting the name of a town on a water tank.”
While their brethren roamed the countryside, the city wall dogs worked the endless canvas of their domain. Some of these earlier freewheeling painters established a reputation as a colorful lot—literally an figuratively. Active signpainters were easily distinguished by their apparel, daubed with colorful paints, leftovers from the days’ work. I’ve heard that some outdoor men, before boarding the streetcar for home, would coat their paint-splattered shoes with black paint. A man’s got to have some pride.
Then there was drink. Libation of the alcoholic sort. Maybe it was from mixing paint using turpentine and lacquers, spirits in their own right, or maybe the painters were justly parched from an honest days’ labor, but somehow the signpainter came to be regarded as a tippler. There is the stereotypic notion of the signpainter on a scaffold, a fitch in his hand and a pint in his back pocket. For every sign man who says this is hogwash, there is another who will slyly wink.
While on assignment for Signs of the Times in 1983, I tracked down a handful of wall dogs, some retired and some still at it. I visited the Foster & Kleiser Company in South Chicago, at the time the largest outdoor advertising company in the country. There I met journeyman Tom Cavanaugh, Ed Litwin and Jim Chicouris. I was allowed to watch them work, but the actual story-telling came after they clocked out, at a nearby diner.
“We are very hardworking,” allowed Chicouris,. “Once we had a time consultant follow us around and he couldn’t believe how fast and efficient we worked. We would go to the [Chicago] Loop on Sundays, four to six of us on a crew. Sundays there were no pedestrians or traffic to worry about. We’d finish a he wall in a day.”
With the typical wall job measuring about 400 square feet [20 by 20] and involving letters six to eight feet tall, the sign men had to be fast. If they weren’t they were sacked. Said Ed Litwin, then a 25-year veteran of the trade, “There was always a lot of slappin’—slapping the paint on. The sign companies wanted fast work. It was always push, push, go, go.”
The guys joked about Slappy Hooper, the signpainter’s version of Paul Bunyan. Slappy once had a wall job so big that it took a gallon of paint just to dot the “i.” And Slappy used skyhooks to hold up his scaffold so he could paint ads on clouds. But of all the living, breathing bigger-than-life signpainters I heard of, Bat Smith of Chicago was the most colorful. Bat was the epitome of a wall dog—crusty in appearance, salty in his language. Like any normal painter, Bat swore vehemently when things went wrong, as they often did. But those curses and epithets didn’t offend too many ears, because most of the time Bat worked so high that nobody heard him anyway.
Both of Bat’s legs had been broken, leaving him with a sort of waddling gait. Still, he worked the high scaffold, where for eight hours a day he was Lord of the Realm Below. However, Bat treated his subjects with disdain, for Bat chewed tobacco and, whether he was on the street or 20 stories above it, Bat spat as he pleased. One of Bat’s stunts was to slide apeman-fashion down the ropes and falls, either from the roof of a building to the scaffold below or from scaffold to street level. This was known as a “roof swing” and at one time was common practice among wall dogs.
Some companies paid higher wages for hazardous duty, working above, say, 100 feet and higher. High work could be safe or dangerous, depending on equipment or weather conditions. City streets with tall buildings can become wind tunnels and strong gusts caused scaffolds on high to pitch, sending uncovered paint all over the street below, raining on cars and pedestrians alike, and forcing the wall dog to cling for dear life. For the true wall dog, however, the higher he was, the better he liked it. “Some fellas just like to be up there with the birds,” Tom Cavanaugh put in. “That’s where they find peace of mind.”
Men such as Art Hunn and Tom Cavanaugh are members of an old school of sign painting, a school of hard knocks which awarded countless diplomas but whose alumni are increasingly harder to locate. Here in St. Louis, in the year 2012, I was able to speak to two former wall dogs, Jim Kargus and Lonnie Tettaton. Both were active signpainters from the 1950s forward, painting not just brick walls but billboards and barges,water towers and smokestacks, fences and barns; you-name-it, they painted a sign on it.
JIM KARGUS, WALLDOG
Jim “Korky” Kargus painted signs of all kinds in St. Louis for 42 years. Starting in 1949, while in high school, he began working for the family business, C. Kargus Signs. Both Jim and his older brother Bob learned the business from their father, Casper, a well-known sign artist in St. Louis. The brothers both served in the armed services, Jim in the Coast Guard and Bob in the Army, where he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge. Upon discharge, both returned to St. Louis and to Kargus Signs and became partners when their father died. The company flourished for years, but when work slowed in the early 1960s Jim went to Piros Sign Company, where his talents with large-scale pictorial painting and lettering got him assigned to the high work and he became a bona fide walldog until his retirement in 1991. Piros Sign is still in operation today. Meanwhile, brother Bob kept Kargus Signs going until the early 1990s.
The C. Kargus Sign Company began in 1883 when Jim’s grandfather, Casper, opened a shop at 1541 S. Broadway. From there the shop moved to 10th Street and Allen Avenue, in Soulard, where the Kargus family also lived. At this time, in the 1920s, Kargus Signs kept their hand in virtually any kind of outdoor work, from wall signs to gold leaf window-lettering to house painting to tuckpointing. When Casper Sr. died, the running of the business fell to two brothers: Casper Jr., Jim’s dad, and Albert Kargus. Albert went into the house painting-tuckpointing end of it, while Casper Jr. honed in on signs. In 1933, with Prohibition behind and the breweries once again turning out the suds, Kargus Signs got the lucrative Anheuser-Busch account which kept them busy for years to come. Other major accounts included Quality Dairy, Clover Farms and City Ice & Fuel.
Today, Jim Kargus, 83, lives in South County and enjoys a retirement punctuated by frequent visits from his many children and grandchildren. Like his mother, father and grandfather before him, and like many of the best pictorial signpainters of yore, Jim has always been drawn to art for art’s sake. To be sure, having studied art at Washington University helped him in the practical business of making signs, but when not doing the commercial job he brings out the canvas to render landscapes and still lifes. He walks with the help of a cane and a leg brace due to a job-related fall on a river barge, an injury that nags but did not hinder his productivity. Jim still keeps his old, wooden, paint-splattered kit handy for lettering the occasional sign or show card as the need arises, parish festivals for example. I caught up with Jim on a cool, cloudy afternoon in November, 2012. He expressed surprise that after all these years anyone would care to interview him about his career as a signpainter.
“I was in high school when I started working with dad,” Jim recalled. “We got along real well. He’d have me clean brushes and other small jobs around the shop, and sometimes he’d take me out on jobs. A lot of them [employees] couldn’t do art, the picture work. Dad saw that I had some artistic talent and one day he said, ‘How about you drawing the AB Eagle?’ After that, I worked on the Budwesier flying eagle. As time went on we did Busch and Michelob signs, too. One day I was painting a beer bottle on side of tavern and making it look like there was sweat [condensation] on it. August [Busch] the Third stopped by and watched me work. Finally, he said, ‘I see where you made a mistake—you got a runner.’ A runner is a drip that gets between the cracks of the brick and runs down where it shouldn’t be. So I fixed it then and there, and he got back in his car and drove off.”
The future wall dog became accustomed to heights at a tender age.
“Downtown, near what is now the Poplar Street Bridge, used to be what they called the French Market. This place had a lot of large buildings, ten–twelve stories, which had various businesses, but mostly sewing and manufacturing, shirts and trousers and blouses—each floor was different. And the advertisements were on the brick between each floor. Dad was there a lot. One particular time, dad forgot his lunch. I told mom I could take it to him. So I went down there, dad was way up high on a stage, painting away. I crawled up the fire escape, went over to an open window, leaned out and gave him his lunch. And he said, ‘You want to sit here with me?’ I was just a kid, I said, ‘Heck, yeah!’ So he pulled me through the window and we sat on the stage together had lunch. Then he had to go back to work so I went back through the window, down the fire escape, and back home.”
Enough work to go around, but then…
“My older brother, Bob, went in the service in 1944 and fought in the Battle of the Bulge [Dec 1944 – Jan 1945] where he was wounded pretty badly. One hand was all wired together, and there was shrapnel in his side. He was a mess when he came back. Bob couldn’t do much lettering, but he did the decal work and he did the books while I would take care of the men, order materials, keep the trucks running and so forth. Dad would design the layouts. We had two wall crews and two window crews. There was a journeyman and a helper on each truck and we would send one truck up north and one down south, or west depending on where the jobs were. It didn’t matter what truck I was on because I could do walls, windows, fences, pretty much everything. That was when the breweries were going great guns with advertising. We did the whole St. Louis area for Anheuser-Busch. Gray Sign had Griesedieck Beer and I think Simon Signs had Falstaff. At the time, my wife worked for Stag Brewery and we ended up doing some of that account—wall signs, fences, glass work, show cards, a lot of decal work. But then the work dwindled. Falstaff moved out, Stag moved to Illinois, Black Label went out East and then next thing you know there were only four of us. It got to the point where it wasn’t paying for Bob and I to be together. Dad had said to me before he died, ‘If anything happens with the shop where you can’t go on together, you give it to Bob. You’ve got four good limbs, your brother doesn’t.’ So I packed up.
“I went to Piros Sign in 1963. Lou Brand and Larry Bumb were the owners. Larry once said if you ever need a job come on out. I took him up on that offer and I worked there until I retired, in 1991. Up until then, much of their work was sign erection. I started doing the wall work—walldog, that’s what they called me—and the pictorials that went on those walls and billboards. That’s what Larry wanted me for, to paint hamburgers, cars, bottles of beer.”
Piros Signs did a brisk trade in maintaining billboards along the Interstates. There was a lot to do even before they started painting.
“We worked halfway between here and Kansas City, doing 8 by10s and 10 by 20s, the old wooden billboards, for King Motels, Zephyr Petroleum, Fina Petroleum and Falstaff beer. We painted on site. Those old trucks were pretty sturdy and we’d go off the road and into where the signs were. First we’d take an ax and weed whackers and clear the brush away just to be able to get to the sign. And poison ivy was terrible out there, we caught that all the time. We had a system going, you had to if you want to make time. The first day we’d prep two or three, scrape them, add a prime coat, get them ready. Next day, get the finishes [finishing coat of paint] up, bring your pattern work up and then start lettering, do pictures, whatever you had to do. You get done with one, you jump to the next one. If it was a large job you’d leave your stage and scaffolding there overnight so you can come back the next morning and keep working. We were usually gone two days, maybe three, staying in motels and eating in greasy spoons along the way. It was interesting you got to meet different people and see different things along the way.”
The Highway Beautification Act was enacted in 1966. This mandated that billboards will stand no closer than 660 feet from the highway. More than two football fields distant. How did this affect the business?
“Well the signs just got bigger and bigger and higher and higher. We ended up working, I’d say over 100 feet, high enough to go over the bushes and trees and the signs themselves would span, oh, 20 by 40 to 20 by 60. And you would just use fewer words because when you’re moving at 60-70 miles per hour you don’t have time to read. It’s got to be a flash in your eye and it hits your brain, and that’s it.”
Things were changing in the sign business. Lead-based paint discontinued, signs more distant, obligatory safety precautions. OSHA came along and mandated the use of harnesses.
“Many years we worked the high walls without harnesses. You always had to make sure you walked on the outside edges of the scaffolding while you were up there working otherwise it would tip. And you usually had one maybe two ropes that dropped down from the top that you’d hold on to when you were crossing back and forth from one another, and out in the center you usually had an extra rope hanging there, so that in case you lost your balance you had something to grab real quick. You always had to have a pipe or hook from the opposite side of the building that you tied to so that all your ropes had an extra safety line in case a fire wall pulled out or something. That way we’d just fall maybe a foot or two before we’d catch. You’ve got to have some means of keeping you from falling off completely. And if you did fall, well, you just had to make sure you knew how to bounce [laughs].”
Still, accidents do happen.
“The only time I got hurt working was on a barge in the Mississippi River. We were over on the Illinois side, lettering a 4 by 40-foot sign on the side of this barge, and I was going to get more paint. I was going from one level to another when suddenly another barge pulled up and bumped us. I tripped over a guideline, fell eight feet, and landed on my back. I was out for 20 days, and eventually had to have two disks removed from my back. They also fitted me for a leg brace. The first one cracked and then they fitted me for a different one that was heavier so when I stood on the rungs of the ladder it wouldn’t break. I climbed ladders and did all that work for 10 years after my injury.”
The buddy system worked well as long as you could find the right buddy.
“At Piros there was a guy named Johnny Phillip. I would not go on a job without him. He was knowledgeable, a hard worker, he would never tire. We had to pull all our rigging up by hand and when we worked high he would check everything beforehand—our ropes to make sure they weren’t cut or worn, make sure the block and tackles were intact. Johnny would check all the equipment and so would I, after him, and never once did he say, ‘Don’t you trust me?’ I was thrilled to death he checked and it got done twice, because you never know when you’re going to make a mistake.”
Piros Signs also specialized in lettering water towers and oil tanks. What was it like, being in such a lofty perch?
“Oh we’d look out on the horizon and remark on how far we could see or maybe we’d laugh about something the kids did at home, but I would say that up there your mind is never that far off. When you get up 75 feet to 100 feet or higher there’s an updraft which lifts the scaffolding, and you’re constantly looking over to make sure nothing got loose. Likewise, paint pots, we’d tie them off so as not to spill in the wind and a lot of times you’d hook smaller pots of paint on your belt, one color here and one there so you could paint with both hands. Johnny and I did the Pittsburgh Paint water tower down in Festus [a town south of St. Louis]. That structure was 230 feet top to bottom. We brought binoculars along. You get up on top of it at lunchtime, you’d see the tip of the Gateway Arch, the light blinking, had to be at least 30 miles away … every time we worked over 100 feet we got extra pay. And it was a risk, it was dangerous, but I had seven at the table.”
Certainly you got some satisfaction from doing work that would be highly visible.
“When you look at a sketch the artist drew and you look up and the finished sign looks just like that sketch, you know you did your job right. And by the same token, you knew when you made a mistake.”
Were there many you had to redo?
“There were maybe two and those were spelling mistakes. You had a name like ‘Dinning’ and maybe you got distracted and forgot that second ‘ I ‘. So you’ve got to go back up there and coat out the NG and put the I in where it belongs. When that happened you got docked for your time, the additional time it took to correct the mistake. The helpers, most of them couldn’t letter, they used to complain when they got docked [for the time it took to correct a mistake]. If it’s not their mistake I understand why, but when you send two men out it’s a team and if the journeyman makes a mistake they both are responsible. On the other hand, some of these helpers were experts at goofing off. We get a half-hour for lunch, these guys’d take an hour or they’d go across the street to the tavern and meantime you’re up there on the scaffolding waiting to get the job done. Sometimes we needed extra help and Larry, my boss, he’d call the [union] hall to round up a couple guys and the hall would pick some guy that was already on my list. And I’d say, ‘No, don’t send him. He’s no good, he’s going to goof off.’ And you could hear the reaction on the other end of the phone—’Damn that Kargus!’”
Do you feel that as a walldog you got extra respect?
“Well, yeah, they used to say, ‘Are you the guy that paints the big signs?’ Once in a while they’d give you an extra drink when you’re having lunch or something like that. They’d smile at you and kind of laugh and say that you’re nuts for climbing around out there [laughs].”
How about the other signpainters—what did they think?
“Well, they weren’t prone to flattery. As far as the climbing part of it, they’d just shake their head and say, ‘You’ll never find me up there with the birds.’ Actually the people that got the most respect were the men who did the glass work, because it was a delicate and precise exercise and the lettering had to be done backwards on glass so that it could be read properly. That was top of the trade, those men were looked up to more than wall men were.”
Fletcher’s Castoria Midtown St. Louis 1987
Suddenly exposed through demolition of an adjoining building, this old sign appeared on the side of the old Grand-Olive Market. Here is a classic example of a commercial double-exposure or palimpsest, Fletcher’s Castoria painted over an earlier ad for Quaker Oats. The slogan “The Kind You Have Always Bought” is easily traceable to the product by anyone with access to the internet.
Charles Lorch Tower Grove Market Tower Grove East 2011
This old wall dating to turn-of-the-20th century was first seen on the blog of Dr. Ken Jones, an avid wall sign documentarian based in California. Jones had passed through St. Louis in 2009 and photographed the relic. Acting on somewhat vague directions provided by Jones and scouring the Tower Grove neighborhood for several days, I was able to find the site.
It is pretty well accepted that my book, Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America, published in 1989, was the first comprehensive look at this form of outdoor advertising to be available to the general public. That volume containing eight chapters and over 110 images, both color and black-and-white, had a modest run of 5,000 and was sold out by 2001. Several things have happened since the appearance of Ghost Signs 23 years ago, and, in the fuller understanding and appreciation of this subject, they are significant.
The first encouraging development was a marked increase in the awareness of these fading signs. Ghost Signs sparked an interest and before long people began poking around factory districts and old blue-collar neighborhoods in their own towns and cities. Almost from the onset I have been contacted by journalists seeking comment on wall signs—background, painting technique, prevalence of brand names, durability, wall dog anecdotes and more. The first such feature with a direct connection to my work appeared on the cover of Toledo, the Sunday magazine of the Toledo Blade, in December, 1989. In that piece, Mary Manton White chose to focus on wall signs as windows to “the history and culture of our past.” She wrote, “… the signs tell us about ourselves; our past, present, and maybe our future. In exploring our city, we learn to observe its aesthetic qualities, its people, its neighborhoods, its buildings.” Ms. White was perhaps the first but certainly not the last to make this sociological-cultural-historical connection between wall signs and their built environment. In my archives are wall sign features datelined Houston, Peoria, Des Moines, Moline, Grand Rapids, New York City, Baltimore and more. Collectively, this attention by media marks the awareness phase of a process that certain commercial objects—think neon signs, route 66 diners, Airstream travel trailers—may undergo en route to experiencing a renascence, a process that has been called “discovery-awareness-revival.” Today, there are numerous websites devoted to wall signs, including my own, as well as scores of TV-generated segments and mini-documentaries on the topic, easily accessible via YouTube and other video-sharing sites.
Which brings us to the internet, the second major thing to have come along since the publication of Ghost Signs. Talk about a boon, this has been nothing short of amazing. In the early 1980s, I was actively seeking out and documenting walls—for posterity, I suppose; the book offer didn’t come until 1987. When the book offer did come from Cincinnati-based ST publications and I began to research the products depicted in these old ads, well, it was like trying to decipher the dead sea scrolls. That may be an exaggeration, but how does one go about digging up information on long-gone commodities such as Blanke’s Faust Blend Coffee and Dr. Hoffman’s Red Drops? If they are local products one went to the main library and began the painstaking process of poring over reference materials—old city directories, histories of notable capitalists and their companies—and if you were diligent you might come up with a few sentences’ worth. If the product was national in scope and had been around for a while, you could solicit the D’arcy Collection of Advertising located at the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana. A photo of the advertisement in question and any supporting materials such as ad copy or a slogan could be sent to the university and, for a fee, a librarian would get to work on it. In this way I was able to get detailed information as well as reproductions of period advertising on W.B. Corsets, Paris Garters and Fairbank’s Gold Dust Washing Powder—intriguing wall signs I had come across but knew virtually nothing about. This was the state of my research in the late 1980s.
Today it is ridiculously easy to learn about products, both extinct and extant, that are found on old sign walls. You simply Google the brand name, Old Pattison Whiskey, for example, and voila! up comes a dozen choices ranging from a history of the distillery on Wikipedia to references in historical archives to various items of original advertising—ephemera and hardware—available for purchase. The internet is especially helpful if the brand name is obscured and all you have to go by is a slogan or part of a slogan. Recently here, an urban wall was exposed. While the name of the product advertised was still covered over with plaster and lathe, at the top, perfectly legible, was the tantalizing phrase: “the kind you have always bought.” Hmm, what could that be? Go to my computer, type in that slogan, and within seconds I am looking at an advertisement for Fletcher’s Castoria in the September 7, 1906 edition of the Union County [New Jersey] Standard. The ad copy reads in full: “Castoria / for infants and children / the kind you have always bought / bears the signature of Chas. H. Fletcher / in use for over 30 years.” This online archive, maintained by the Westfield Memorial Library in Westfield, New Jersey, is just one example in a constellation of examples making up the invaluable resource that the internet has proven to be.
It should be said that the collector’s market, more than any other force, provides the largest contribution to present-day knowledge of bygone products. Trading cards, matchbooks, bottle openers, corkscrews, pen knives, ice picks, tins, trays, bottles, labels, drinking vessels, calendars, medallions, and anything else that could bear an ad are all viewable on the computer screen. The hope, naturally, is that these items will be purchased, but meanwhile they are there for our edification. It could be said that E-bay, Worthpoint, and myriad other websites courting the collectibles market are the new research libraries. Moreover, the internet works to bring together like-minded persons, creating and enabling the formation of forums, clubs, and confederacies for this or that particular interest, be it medical researchers, cat fanciers or wall sign enthusiasts. In this way, I can learn of “new” finds in my own city, a city I know very well, from fellow sign enthusiasts elsewhere in the country and even overseas—people who have come through my city and documented signs that have escaped my scrutiny. Those images are then posted on the internet for the world to see. Such was the case with the faded ads for Tower Grove Market and Waverly Bicycles [see Race Course Avenue], featured here as a Recent Post.
Finally, photography has gone from film to digital, a quantum leap in the 173-year history of the science [1839-2012]. From 1990 to 1996, I taught photojournalism at Saint Louis University School for Professional Studies and toward the end of that tenure I recall guest speakers, professional photographers, who were just switching to “digital” and raving about the convenience and the image quality afforded by the new cameras. To these practitioners of “high-end photography,” the camera was only the first step of the digital process that led to the final image. Combine the wizardry of Photoshop or software such as High Dynamic Range and anybody with the patience to learn may become a master of digital imagery.
In summation, technology is a double-edged sword; long ago it made obsolete the hand-lettering of wall signs yet today, it allows us to readily learn about these bygone products seen on fading walls.