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.
SOME PEOPLE REFER TO ALMOST ANY AGING WALL SIGN AS A “GHOST.” IN MY WORLD THERE ARE WALL SIGNS AND THEN THERE ARE GHOST SIGNS.
GHOST SIGNS ARE SHROUDED WITH INTRIGUE. FADED TO THE POINT OF ILLEGIBILITY, THEY LINGER ON OLD BUILDINGS, ECHOING THE ROBUST COMMERCE OF TIMES PAST. GHOST SIGNS MAY BECOME HIGHLIGHTED UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS SUCH AS THE ROSY GLOW OF A SUNRISE OR SUNSET, OR IN THE FIRST MINUTES OF A RAIN. GHOST SIGNS ARE THE WHISPERS OF A ONCE-RESOUNDING BROADCAST.
ONLY A FRACTION OF THE SIGNS PICTURED IN THIS WEBSITE ARE BONA FIDE GHOST SIGNS. HOWEVER, GIVEN THE PASSING OF TIME, ALL EXTANT WALL SIGNS WILL EVENTUALLY FADE INTO APPARITIONS. THE DEGREE OF FADING THAT WALL SIGN UNDERGOES DEPENDS ON THREE VARIABLES: THE PAINT FORMULA USED, THE DIRECTION IN WHICH THE SIGN FACES, AND THE CLIMATE.
THE SIGNS PICTURED HERE AND ELSEWHERE IN THIS VENUE WERE DONE WITH LEAD-BASED PAINT. AND WITH THE VERY OLD ONES, THOSE IN THE GHOSTLY PHASE OF THEIR EXISTENCE, NOT ONE RESIDUAL LETTER, NOT ONE WHISPER OF A BRUSH STROKE WOULD BE VISIBLE TODAY WERE IT NOT FOR THIS PAINT. THE OTHER TWO VARIABLES, WEATHER AND FACING DIRECTION, ARE CLOSELY RELATED. IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE, NORTH-FACING WALLS GET THE LEAST VOLUME OF SUNLIGHT, WHICH, THEORETICALLY, MEANS LESS FADING. IN THE MIDWEST WEST-FACING WALLS TAKE THE BRUNT OF THE ELEMENTS—DRIVING RAIN, SNOW AND ICE—AND CONSEQUENTLY SIGNS ON THESE WALLS OFTEN HAVE SHORTER LIFE EXPECTANCIES. IN GENERAL, MODERATE CLIMES ARE BETTER FOR WALL SIGNS; LESS EXPANSION AND CONTRACTION OF THE PAINTED SURFACE.
BECAUSE OF THEIR ELUSIVENESS, GHOST SIGNS OFFER A REAL CHALLENGE. SOME LURK IN SHADOWY GANGWAYS BETWEEN BUILDINGS, WHILE OTHERS ARE PASSED OVER BECAUSE OF THEIR INDISTINCTNESS. ONCE FOUND, THEIR MESSAGES MAY BE INCOMPLETE, REQUIRING A FILL-IN-THE-BLANKS KIND OF DECIPHERING. AND WHEN DECIPHERED, THE CONTENT OF THESE RELICS CAN BE WONDERFULLY ANACHRONISTIC, THEIR PROMOTIONS OF A CERTAIN STOVE POLISH OR MEN’S GOLF GARTERS PROMPTING AMAZEMENT, IF NOT AMUSEMENT. THOSE WHO SEEK OUT THESE ARCANE SIGNS WILL BE REWARDED.
OLIVE AND SPRING – MIDTOWN 1980
A TRUE GHOST SIGN, THIS EARLY 20TH CENTURY RENDERING WAS FOUND ON THE EAST WALL OF A CRUMBLING BRICK BUILDING IN MIDTOWN, NEAR THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT WHERE I WORKED. I BELIEVE THIS SIGN HAD BEEN THERE FOR 60 OR 70 YEARS WHEN I CAME UPON IT IN 1980, BY THEN ITS LETTERS BARELY VISIBLE. IT WAS SO OBSCURE THAT I DROVE PAST IT FOR A YEAR BEFORE NOTICING IT—AND I LOOK FOR SUCH THINGS.
CHEW WHITE’S YUCATAN GUM
TAYLOR AND MAFFITT – NORTH ST. LOUIS 2012
ANOTHER RELIC THAT I MUST HAVE DRIVEN PAST MANY TIMES WITHOUT NOTICING, UNTIL JUST RECENTLY. WHITE’S YUCATAN GUM WAS CREATED IN 1880 BY WILLIAM J. WHITE WHO COMBINED CORN SYRUP WITH CHICLE AND FLAVORED IT WITH PEPPERMINT. THEIR SLOGAN: “TO THE TASTE.” IN 1962, THE COMPANY WAS ACQUIRED BY WARNER-LAMBERT, A DIVERSIFIED CONCERN THAT MANUFACTURED BOTH PHARMACEUTICALS AND CANDY. WARNER-LAMBERT, IN TURN, WAS ACQUIRED BY PFIZER IN 2000. WHITE’S YUCATAN GUM WAS LOST IN THE SHUFFLE.
Tobacco Road once came through St. Louis and vicinity. These five sign walls, featuring four smoking brands, were signposts along the way. See also Weisert Tobacco Co. for more local tobacco lore.
Gibbons Grocery / Mail Pouch Tobacco
St. Elmo, IL 1987
“Treat Yourself To The Best.” While barns got the most attention, the Helme Tobacco Company, makers of Mail Pouch, targeted walls in small towns as well. The advertising was so successful that to this day, someone who might not even know a tobacco chewer is still aware of Mail Pouch. Famed Mail Pouch signpainter Harley Warrick likely did this job.
Wetmore Best Tobacco
South Jefferson – South St. Louis 1979
A plug chewing tobacco made by the American Tobacco Company, this sign was found on the side of an old building. The sign and the building are long gone.
Bull Durham Tobacco
Collinsville, IL 1983
In 2003, thirty years after I took this picture, this sign had become embroiled in controversy. By then, Collinsville residents had come to appreciate and feel protective of their charming, old sign gracing the side of a building at 111 E. Main Street. To be sure, it was a key element in its commercial environment. So, when word got out that signpainter Lonnie Tettaton had been hired to “freshen up” the fading ad, well, some preservation-minded citizens were up in arms. To repaint the bull was tantamount to desecration. Judy DeMoisy, of Downtown Collinsvile, a non-profit group that promotes preservation and revitalization, was perhaps the most vehement opponent to touching up the sign. She noted that there are only a few unaltered Bull Durham signs left in the country, and to alter this one from its original state was “like painting over the Mona Lisa.” But John Kroot, manager of the Carl I. Brown Mortgage Company, which occupies the building, was unmoved. The decision had been made. “We just thought if it was going to be there, it should look good,” he told the local reporter.
So it was that Tettaton rolled up with his brushes and paints and scaffolding and went to work; a week later, the job was done. The letters in Bull Durham are a brighter yellow, the grass in the background is a more verdant green, and the bull is brown again. The words “Smoking Tobacco” are easily readable along a fence railing, which conveniently covers the bull’s loins. This “modesty fence,” as it has been dubbed, appears on Bull Durham signboards dating from 1909 and later.
A signpainter once informed that the term “bullpen” originated from the fact that Bull Durham signboards were strategically placed in ball parks over the area where the pitchers worked out, thereby getting maximum attention.
Bull Durham Tobacco – Madison, IL 2014
Another large, bold Bull Durham sign on Collinsville Ave in Madison, IL just over the river from St. Louis. Though the wall is south-facing, taking on plenty of sunlight and subject to faster fading, the bull is plainly visible in the lower right corner. It is obvious that the window and door have been installed after the sign was painted. The door leads to nowhere, a possible explanation being that there had been another structure there, one which had been razed in the not too distant past. This would account for the parking lot next to the sign wall and the fact that I have been exploring the East Side for more than 30 years and never saw this beauty until this year.
Chew Star Tobacco – Near Southside St. Louis 2011
A two-story, west-facing sign on Folsom Ave exhorts the passerby to Chew Star Tobacco, flagship product of the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company which operated for decades just a few blocks to the east. A slogan near the bottom of the sign, and partially obscured by sheet metal and other stuff in someone’s backyard, reads “Leading Brand Of The World.”
Blanke’s Faust Blend Coffee
Dr. M. L. King Avenue – Wellston 1981
A long-discontinued local brand, Blanke’s is one of my favorite signs, partly because of the literary reference to Goethe’s famous work, Faust, a tragic play in two parts. The storyline has Mephistopheles, a devil, tempting Dr. Faust with 24 additional years of life in which he is to have “every pleasure and all knowledge at his command.” In this depiction, that same Mephistopheles tempts the consumer with a savory brand of coffee. While Goethe has Dr. Faust selling his soul to get the goods, in this sign the consumer need only buy the coffee. The C. F. Blanke Tea & Coffee Company was founded by Cyrus F. Blanke and operated in St. Louis from 1890 to sometime previous to World War II. The stately low-rise C. F. Blanke building still stands at 904 S. 14th Street and has been in use as commercial office space.
Wellston was once a bustling business district, but today most of its commercial architecture have fallen into disrepair. Although this building on which this sign once graced is gone, another Blanke’s Coffee sign, sans illustration, may still be seen on the west wall of the Sidney Street Cafe, located at the corner of Sidney and Salena Streets in South St. Louis.
Old Judge Coffee and Tea
Laclede’s Landing – St. Louis Riverfront
The Old Judge Coffee Building at 710 N. Second Street dates to 1884. Originally built for the offices of Scharff & Bernheimer, a prominent shipping firm of the era, this building was purchased by Old Judge Coffee in 1918 and converted into a factory and spice warehouse. At peak levels the company produced over three million pounds of coffee per month. According to the official Laclede’s Landing website, on warm St. Louis days the smell of cinnamon can still be detected from wood supports on the third floor.
St. Louis’ first and oldest district, Laclede’s Landing also contains some of the city’s oldest buildings. From warehouses to saloons to fur tanning companies to factories, The Landing has been the home of thousands of businesses since the city’s founding in 1764.
There are prominent Sunny Brook Whiskey signs on either side of the river at St. Louis, both of them quite dated and both painted on the sides of large red, brick buildings. The Old Sunny Brook Distillery Company, based in Louisville, Kentucky, produced Kentucky Straight Bourbon and Kentucky Blended Whiskey.
On the Missouri side is a decent example located on South Broadway near Interstate 55, on the north face of what is currently a computer repair business. The large letters are unevenly faded but still mostly legible, reading top-to-bottom:
The other sign is found on the Exchange Club, 404 Sycamore, in Belleville, Illinois, and, like most west-facing wall signs, it is quite faded. Yet, with some study, it is still readable and overall in good condition. This advertisement has considerably more to say than its Missouri counterpart. It also contains a reference to the 1904 World’s Fair, held in St. Louis, which dates the sign, likely, to within five years after the Fair. It reads like this:
fleur de lis [window] AGE [window] PURITY [window] MAKE fleur de lis
[window] SOLD [window] A PERFECT WHISKEY [window]
GRAND & GOLD
We see the layout is original and unchanged, because the lettering has been carefully planned around the windows. There are no other signs occupying the same space, painted before or after this ad, which is somewhat unusual for a highly visible brick building such as the Exchange Club. At the base of the wall, off to the side, is a flagpole and a World War One Memorial.
The brand name Sunny Brook Whiskey was first used in 1891 by the Old Sunny Brook Distillery Company. The 80 proof spirits were distilled and bottled in Louisville at 28th and Broadway from 1891 until sometime prior to 1975 when that distillery was razed. From the beginning on into the 1960s, the company seems to have stressed that their whiskey was always a wholesome product with a slogan in the early days “The Pure Food Whiskey.” Labels proudly displayed the medallion of its Grand Prize Award at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 on bottles well into the 1980s. Advertising and promotional giveaways for Sunny Brook Whiskey were abundant and much of it may still be seen for sale on e-Bay. In later decades, the company used imagery of cowboys, playboys, and a Great White Hunter on safari to sell their product, but the character most commonly seen is found in advertisements dating from the early 20th century—a spit-and-polish gent in a military uniform, looking like Lord Kitchener in the Boer War, the “Guardian of Quality for Generations.” In the 1980s, Old Sunny Brook Distillery was bought out by the National Distillers Products Company. The trademark is now owned by Jim Beam Brands Company.
As a political protest, it has gotten more attention than a park full of Occupy protesters. It amuses. It polarizes. It sparks debate. It is an embarrassment to some and an indictment to others. It has made the front page of both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The St. Louis Daily Record. It has pitted ordinance-citing city officials against free speech advocates and, over the course of several years, the battle over the three-story mural has wound its way through the legal system, finally ending up before the U.S. Supreme Court. However, that august body declined to review the case, allowing to stand a previous decision by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that the St. Louis sign code violates the First Amendment. This development, which occurred in late February, 2012, had housing activist Jim Roos in a jubilant mood.
Roos owns a number of aging structures in an area south of downtown known as Bohemian Hill. After the city condemned 24 of his buildings for private development, Roos decided to fight back. On the side of one of his un-condemned buildings he commissioned a painting with the words “End Eminent Domain Abuse” within a red circle with a red slash through it. At the bottom is the attribution “by K. Hart.” The mural, which measures more than 360 square feet, offers an unobstructed view from Interstates 44 / 55 where they merge near downtown.
At issue was whether the message was a sign or an art mural or something else. The city argued in the 8th Court of Appeals that the mural, which it deems a sign, is illegal because it violates two counts of the zoning code for a residential area: It exceeds the 30 square-foot maximum permitted for a sign, and it is on the side of the building rather than the front. As for the political message being broadcast, case law has upheld a municipality’s right to regulate “the time, place, and manner of speech” through the enforcement of sign codes. But the 8th Circuit Court justices did not address these restrictions. Instead, the court looked at the sign code and its exemptions and exceptions in the definition of “sign”— illustrative art, flags, crests, and the like—and said the content must be scrutinized to determine whether it is a sign. The zoning code’s definition of sign contained content-based exemptions and exceptions, the 8th Circuit found. Extrapolating from this, it seems that Jim Roos’ creation is not strictly a sign per se, in that it is not selling something. Instead, it may be seen as a work of art expressing a sentiment and therefore not subject to restrictions of a sign code.
Grand Avenue is one of the longest streets in St. Louis, a north-south thoroughfare with a median near Saint Louis University where the numbers start in the single digits and begin to climb in either direction. North Grand Circle, close to its terminus at Interstate 70, is a roundabout with a large, white Corinthian column in the middle. A landmark in what is now called College Hill. This area was once alive and bustling, but certainly not in the 34 years that I have lived here. In the late 1970s, when, as a public health officer, I first came upon College Hill, the once-vibrant commercial environment was already in a woeful state of dereliction and it has gone downhill ever since. The storefronts and businesses that once lined the traffic circle are now mostly gone—buildings shuttered or demolished altogether—and nothing has come along to replace them.
Amidst this forlorn setting, reading the walls as it were, we catch a glimpse of an earlier time when the Circle with its imposing monolithic tower was not merely a transit point, a place to pass through without much notice, but a destination where folks shopped for sundries, drank in saloons, ate in lunchrooms, or simply milled about waiting for something to happen. Yes, reading the walls, because there were two grand old advertisements visible on the periphery of North Grand Circle: Admiral The New Cigarette and W.B. Corsets, both windows to the past. In referring to these old signs I use the past tense, for they are no longer with us.
For perhaps 20 years, Admiral Cigarettes was the largest and best preserved wall sign in St. Louis. This wall was exposed sometime in the 1970s when an adjacent building was torn down, evident by the large vacant lot between it and the street. The building bearing the old sign became more and more decrepit until it, too, was torn down in the mid-1990s. How many years Admiral had been protected from the fading effect of sun rays and elements no one can say with any certainty.
Yet there are clues. The disclaimer “Not Made By A Trust” seen at the bottom of the wall is of note. To the tobacco company who paid for the advertisement it was important enough to include as a selling point, as if to say “We are proudly independent, not accountable to anyone.” This reference may date the sign to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt [1901-09], who was known as the “Trust Buster.” This supposition is bolstered by period advertisements found online. One website with extensive archives, tobaccodocuments.org, features a whimsical ad, a painting dated 1900, of three showgirls standing beside or laying atop a huge pack of Admiral Cigarettes. A comical-looking, bespectacled gent pokes his bald head out of the pack, as tall as the cigarettes on either side of him. The lettering is highly-stylized with line scrolls surrounding the profile of an eagle’s head in the center. The product, we are informed, is “Manufactured by National Cigarette Tobacco Co. – New York, U.S.A.”
Far less prominently displayed was W.B. Exact Form Corsets, a smaller sign occupying a portion of a second-story of a building on the southern side of the Circle. The “W.B.” stands for Weingarten Bros., a national manufacturer of women’s under-apparel. According to circa 1920 ad copy, “For 25 years the letters W.B. have been the sign of the utmost value that human ingenuity and factory resources could put into this corset for the price. Why not have one of our corsetieres fit you to your right model tomorrow?”
Tomorrow came and went and 90 years later all the corsetieres have gone the way of patent medicine peddlers.
The aforementioned Corinthian column has presided over this scene a long, long time. It is actually a water tower, one of three remaining standpipe towers once maintained by the Water Department. When first put into service in 1871, it was considered, according to its Wikipedia entry, “to be the largest perfect Corinthian column in existence,” reaching a height of 154 feet [47 meters]. A second one, The Bissell Water Tower, also called the Red Tower, is located only few blocks to the east, toward the river. The third is the Compton Hill Water Tower located on South Grand near I-44. What is a standpipe? Before modern pumping methods, steam-powered pumps were used to send water throughout the city. Water flow was uneven and pressure surges were common, causing the pipes to rattle and shake. Some residences could not get water to upper floors. Standpipes—large vertical pipes in which a column of water rose and fell—were built to equalize water pressure and prevent surges. Standpipes alone were not attractive and so eye-catching towers were built to house them; each of the towers here is architecturally distinct from the others. At one time, nearly 500 of of these towers dotted our cities and towns. As hydro-technology improved standpipes became obsolete and most of them, along with their towers, were torn down. Today, only seven remain, and St. Louis has three of them. All three have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the early 1970s.
Admiral The New Cigarette – St. Louis, MO 1979
Between its sudden exposure and subsequent demolition 20 years later, this sign stood prominently in North Grand Circle. It is thought to date from around 1900. The business owner’s identification or “privilege” stripped in over the Admiral ad copy reads, in part, [something] Bakery & Confectionery
Next line down: [something-something-something Soda Water & Cigars. While this sign is black-and-white, other specimens were done in color; signpainter Mark Oatis says he once saw a large blue-and-white version in Kansas City.
W.B. Exact Form Corsets – St. Louis, MO 1981
A well-faded sign that had been exposed to elements for probably 60 years when I came upon it. A vertical, rectangular space situated to the left of the primary ad copy likely had an illustration of a woman wearing her new form-fitting corset. The privilege stripped in over the the main ad copy reads Tower Dry Goods. The object in the left foreground is the base of a 154-foot Corinthian column, a city landmark.
On a sweltering day in August, 2010, at a little past one, Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis, had something special to offer. A funeral procession with horse-drawn hearse and a small cortege of mourners came rolling up the street. Now Martin Luther King Drive in its 4200-block is a busy place with lots of shops and businesses, yet all activity ceased for a few minutes. Body shop guys; people buying fruit at the produce stand; bedraggled-looking pickers, their shopping carts brimming with cans—everyone stopped to watch the approach of this wonderment. Which century was it? The first thing to draw attention was a sound that is not very often heard: The clop-clop-clopping of draft horses on the asphalt. As impressive as these horses were—large, yet graceful; wearing the finest tack; feathered plumes adorning their heads—the coach itself was the spectacle. It was a thing of grandeur, white and massive, the steel-rimmed wheels a good six-feet in diameter. The main section, nearly the size of a parlor, had glass sides so one could view the closed casket within. Who was this personage to warrant such a stylish send-off? The coachman, bedecked in white as well, a top hat shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare, looked neither to the left or the right, but held his gaze steady on the horizon. He was in it for the long haul; the cemetery was a good distance off.
“That’s one lucky stiff,” uttered one fellow, none too original, as he went back to his tuck-pointing.
It was something out of a movie or a book, perhaps a fairy tale. For a while, every bystander was transported to a time when Martin Luther King Drive was named Easton Avenue and all the conveyances were horse-drawn. Indeed, there were clues to augment this reverie, for there were signs, viewable in the immediate environment, that hearkened back to the horse-and-buggy days. The funeral procession passed directly below one such anachronism. On the east wall of a large brick building located at 4234 MLK, approximately 16-feet above ground level on what would be the second-story, is a rectangular banner sign that reads “SADDLERY.” That’s all, no other reference. Black lettering on a red-orange field with a black outline; this sign was likely exposed through demolition of an adjacent building in the last five years or so. Had it been there for decades the colors would have washed away in the sunlight.
A similar artifact may be found less than a mile away on another east-west thoroughfare, Delmar Avenue. This west-facing sign is equally brief, having one word only, “HORSESHOERS.” The sign is positioned near the roofline of the three-story edifice, giving it prominent view to east-bound traffic on Delmar. Interestingly, someone has drawn the figure of an old man on some durable paper stock and affixed it to the building at ground level so that the figure appears to be looking up at the old sign.
It is nothing short of remarkable to be able to look through 21st century eyes at signs that were painte
d on buildings in the 19th century.
Likewise, over on the 2100-block of Cass Avenue on the city’s Northside, there was another similar dated wall sign, this one a well-preserved beauty advertising SCHACHT & COOK HORSE SHOERS. I photographed this sign in 1980; the building itself is long since gone and there is no reference to the named business on any available database.
Not far away, just north of downtown, may be found the text-rich sign painted on the south wall of the former Mound City Buggy and Auto Company, located at 1500 N. Broadway. This wall is actually hodgepodge of faded remnants of various signs, some painted over others. In places, the letters appear jumbled, text from disparate ads mixing together, giving the broad, brick face a sort of mishmash effect. How does this happen? The elements have washed away the primer used to cover up the previous ad copy.
What’s nice about this old wall is how the advertised products connect the horse-drawn era to the horseless carriage era. The top line advertising MOUND CITY BUGGY COMPANY is quite legible. Less so, the next line down reading HALLADAY AUTOMOBILE, which is partly obscured by another line of copy, likely painted at a later date, and reading “Mfrs Of Inland-1-Piece Piston Ring.” In terms of ad copy, it is loquacious by modern standards. The casual observer, with diligent study, may decipher the full message found on the lower levels: “Machine Tools, Jigs, and Dies” “1,600,000 In Use And Going Strong.” There is even more verbiage on this wall, but it remains a mystery—a good th
ing, as we don’t want every thing simple and straightforward.
By 1900, the Mound City Buggy and Auto Company had offices variously 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.
Because of all the Indian mounds found on both sides of the river, St. Louis was once known as Mound City and there were, and still are, numerous enterprises that carry the appellation or prefix Mound City. In St. Louis, by the 1880s, virtually all of the mounds were gone, sacrificed to urban development. Tod
ay, only one remains in the 4500-block of Ohio Street, alongside I-55. There is a house built on top of it.
St. Louis is and has been a beer-soaked town. In the city, on nearly every other block, the corner tavern may be found. It’s nothing new; beer has been flowing from local taps for 200 nears now. The difference between beer served a century ago and what is served today is that today’s brew is colder, subject to having gone through more processes, and, in many cases, lighter on the alcohol content. Yes, beer came in bottles Way Back When; even today, it is not uncommon to find discarded, mostly intact 19th century beer bottles, some beautifully embossed, in creek beds, home cellars, and at the bottom of old privies that once dotted every back yard.
The earliest known brewer here was John Coons, who was putting out the suds back in1809, only five years after the territory was purchased by the United States. A year later, Jacques St. Vrain, one of the city’s original French residents and a former military officer, opened the St. Vrain Brewery. In the following decades, St. Louis’ collective thirst became even more prodigious. By 1860, a landmark year for beer production, the city had 40 breweries in operation. After that, the industry scaled back a bit. In my book, Mound City Chronicles, I list 18 local breweries operating in the year 1887. Most of them had names which are German in origin—the Anton Griesedieck Brewing Company, H. Grone Brewing Company, the Wilhelm Stumpf Brewery, Schilling and Schneider Brewing Company, and, of course, the one that would become world-renown, Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association. In fact, beer-making and beer-quaffing in St. Louis took a quantum leap only when the waves of Germans who emigrated here in the years prior to the Civil War became the Beer Barons and the men who worked their breweries.
Of course, it all came to a crashing halt with the passage of the Volstead Act in1919. Prohibition caused the lay-off of hundreds, possibly thousands of brewery workers. Those breweries which did not close their doors for good tried to survive by making alternative products. Falstaff made brewer’s yeast, while other companies flirted with “near beer” in the form of malt beverages—The Louis Obert Brewery producing Trebo [Obert spelled backwards], and Anheuser-Busch bottling Bevo, actually, a fairly popular drink during the 14-year dry spell.
The party was over—or was it? In response to the now outlawed pastime of imbibing heady beverages, a black market sprung up. By and large, tippling was alive and kicking. It simply went underground—small batches of home brew fermenting in basements; larger batches of beer, wine and whiskey finding their way to speak-easies and private parties, organized crime overseeing the distribution. This bustling and clandestine trade ended with the repeal of Prohibition on April 7, 1933, a banner day for St. Louis watering holes, once again filled with working stiffs too long denied the opportunity for a cold one after work—or any time, for that matter. Appropriately, The Milton Ager / Jack Yellen classic “Happy Days Are Here Again” is associated with the repeal of Prohibition.
In 2011, as I write this, there are still signs of those once proud breweries around town. I speak of commercial signs, ads painted on the sides of brick buildings, faded yet legible after so many years of exposure. None of these beers are in production today, and, with the exception of Falstaff, they have not been seen on the shelves for over fifty years.
A large wall bearing an ad for A.B.C. Bottled Bohemian Beer [American Brewing Company] was photographed in the early 1980s on the south face of the former Rose’s On The Hill, now Lorenzo’s Trattoria. Likewise, the very faded ad for Green Tree Beer [H. Grone Brewing Company] was found on a quiet side street of The Hill neighborhood. Hyde Park Beer—“Seldom Equaled, Never Excelled”—was brewed in St. Louis and I have located three existing wall signs for the product: Edwards and Shaw on The Hill; Itaska and Delor on the Southside; and another, featuring a wee walking man, in a Northside neighborhood, the location of which I can’t recall. Columbia Brewing’s flagship product, Alpen Brau—“It’s the Tops!”—has two known wall signs in St. Louis, a pretty faded one at 39th and McRee, and a spot-on re-do located in the gangway of Seamus McDaniel’s Saloon, in Dogtown. Falstaff Beer has two decent examples in the city limits, one on North Broadway and another at Arsenal and Macklind, exposed as recently as 2009. Piros Signs, still operating in Barnhart, Missouri, had the contract with Falstaff to paint and letter all their out outdoor advertising. The last fading beer sign is found across the river in Illinois. Oltimer Beer was brewed by the Star Brewery in Belleville, which ceased operations in 1957. This large and busy ad is still apparent on South Main in Belleville, above what is now a hair salon. Oltimer Beer’s quirky slogan—“10 cents worth of 15 cent beer.”
For a definitive history of St. Louis brewing check out the richly illustrated tome by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin and Kevin Kious titled St. Louis Brews: 200 Years Of Brewing In St. Louis, 1809 – 2009.
The Hyde Park Brewery in St. Louis operated from 1878 to 1948, with a twelve-year hiatus during the prohibition era. It was, in fact, one of the few local breweries to reopen upon repeal of the Volstead Act. The beer’s slogan was the modest proclamation “Seldom Equaled, Never Excelled.”
There are three known Hyde Park walls in St. Louis: Marconi at Shaw on The Hill; North City [cannot recall exact location], and Bates Avenue at the I-55 on-ramp.