Then and Now

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.

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