Ghost Signs...

Again this week I found myself struggling for something to write about. As it turns out, the endless cycle of work, eat, sleep, and repeat doesn't provide much in the way of interesting blog fodder. That was, until I crossed the street on my way home from work, and glanced up at the same building I pass two times a day, when all of a sudden, my heart fluttered with excitement. I had spotted this for the first time:

This, my friends, is a ghost sign -- an advertisement painted on the side of a building long ago, and allowed to fall into neglect. Ghost signs have long captured my imagination, ever since I was a child and I wondered about an old, fading painting of a baby advertising for Gerber on the side of a building in Carrollton. However, I didn't know the proper terminology for them until just this evening, when I was trying to find information about one of the companies from one of the signs posted below. In my quest, I ran across a website created by a graduate student in historic preservation at the Art Institute of Chicago, who was apparently so fascinated by Chicago's ghost sign scene that she decided to make them the subject of her thesis. Simultaneously, I was excited to find someone who shared my passion, but also sad to learn that what I thought was a quirky little hobby of mine apparently has an entire community behind it. I wasn't as unique as I thought.

Still, I consider myself fortunate to live in an area that is rich in ghost signs. In fact, the building across the street from me has several interesting ones:

I think what draws me to these images that many people would consider eye sores is the living connection they provide to the past. I mean, right across the street from where I go about my 21st century life are the remnants of an advertisement for women's corsets, which started to fall out of favor in the 1920's. This advertisement is probably at least 80 years old, and yet it perseveres.

There is also a certain sport to the thrill of the hunting down ghost signs. You have to be vigilant. As my episode near work demonstrates, you can walk past a faded, peeling sign every day, and never notice it. I spotted this one, likely dating back to the gentrification of Printer's Row in the mid-1970's, just the other day when my bus was unexpectedly re-routed.

For me, the ghost signs speak to the continuity of life in the city. When I look at a ghost sign, I am looking at same thing one of my ancestors looked at. It's a bit like looking at historic photos of the city, in that you can try to capture what the city looked like before you were ever a part of it, and imagine what it was like to live then. Certainly, much changes in the city from year to year, and even more so from decade to decade, but the ghost signs are there to reassure us that our mundane lives might be remembered.

Our individual lifestyles may change (as evidenced by the sign above, for a now defunct chain of tiki restaurants, popular in the 1950's and 60's), but the spaces where our existence plays out remain the same. We make our mark on the city, and then fade into obscurity, but the city continues on.

Sadly though, the ghost signs are a disappearing breed, at least in the Loop, and in gentrifying neighborhoods. I once spotted numerous gems, but when I went to start taking pictures for this post, I discovered that many of them have been covered up with black paint to make homes for new ads. One endearingly chipping sign advertised for an AM radio station that had long gone the way of the dodo now has a Starbucks advertisement in its place. What's more, the Starbucks sign is a separate banner, tethered to the side of the building for easy removal. Generations from now, it will no longer be there to reflect our values and interests to those who will inhabit the city after we are long gone.

Therefore, I urge all of you to go on the lookout for ghost signs in your own backyard. What do they say about the people who created them? What do they tell us about the people who have allowed them to persist so long? What sort of physical relics are we leaving for future generations?


  1. Oh, Good Lord! Sometimes it is frightening how much you remind me of Andy. I will have to share this with him. I wonder if he has a passion for ghost signs? He certainly has a passion for old barns, old postcards, etc. In fact, I often get to hear how sad/terrible it is that old barns are being torn down, thus destroying history with them.

  2. There are a lot of great, dilapidated old barns down there. I particularly enjoy the ones that look like they could blow over the moment a strong breeze came along. One time, on my way from St. Louis to White Hall for Christmas, I saw a barn with a baby Jesus chained to the front as a holiday decoration. It was magnificent. I'm still kicking myself for not pulling over and taking a picture.

  3. What about Ruth Larson's building in W.H. she has something on the side or least she used to .

  4. Ghost sign is present on Larson's.

  5. Oh, yes, I was going to give that one a shout out, but I forgot to put it in there. That one is great; as I recall, it's a really big one too!

  6. I'll be on the lookout down here, I know of a couple.

  7. Funny you should mention this...we have just been having talks of recreating such a thing on one of our old buildings in town here. Even though it won't be authentic, hopefully you will find one to take a picture of here someday!
    Speaking of old should check out our barn quilts sometime...Andy would love them! Old Barns AND paintings...could it get any better! :)