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Signs of the Past – “Ghost Signs”

*This post was written by two guest bloggers, Korbyn Hill and Aaron Schmidt, Historic Preservation students at Southeast Missouri State University*

In the 19th and early 20th century, advertisement signs were often painted on buildings. Traveling artists, working on behalf of a company, would rapidly paint a large advertisement sign on a building, then move on to a new town to paint another sign. As these old advertisements faded over time, they became known as “ghost signs.”

Over the course of its existence, the Port Cape Girardeau building in Downtown Cape has accommodated a few different painted advertisements. The large expanse on the building’s northern wall has been a particularly popular place to place ads. The purpose of these old painted signs was to grab attention and to be seen. These old photographs, from c.1900, c.1918, and 1927, show painted ads on the Port Cape Girardeau building.

You might have recognized one of those signs – the large Coca Cola advertisement. This ad has been around for a long time – over 100 years! However, it wasn’t always as visible. It took some sandblasting in 1978 to unveil the old advertisement. Because of its rough condition, the Coca Cola Company itself had the sign repurposed.

Preserving and Restoring Ghost Signs

Ghost signs are rapidly disappearing. The fading of the paint is, of course, part of the problem. However, many of the oldest signs, thanks to the durable lead paint, last very well. The oldest paints seem to permeate the bricks themselves, like a stain. They almost act like a tattoo. Multiple paintings repeatedly stained the same area, so the multi-layer signs result. Newer paints, including those used for restoration, peel off. The uptick in historic wall sign restoration can be credited in part to a renewed interest in downtown historic districts like ours. As more communities focus on spotlighting their historic downtowns, wall sign restoration is one means to bring back that sense of nostalgia.

Conservators restore and bring back to life many faded and forgotten treasures of artwork on many different types of surfaces, but ghost sign conservation can be a tricky skill to learn and master. Conservators today are being asked to preserve the original signs rather than painting over them. New products for consolidation are available that structurally stabilize both the components of the paint and the masonry substrate. Ghost signs often have layers upon layers of paint underneath the front facade of the sign, so this can make it difficult to restore or preserve ghost signs as many people paint over the signs with types of paint that are not similar to the original paint. This can cause the new paint to peel and then the painted layers underneath peel with the paint as well, destroying the ghost sign. Conservation and restoration present additional options for managing ghost signs. Conservation is quite rare. Treatments that affect the natural decay of ghost signs can be subject to similar assessments of authenticity to avoid such ‘damage.’ Many consider the increasingly widespread repainting of ghost signs incredibly damaging. This was done routinely when they were ‘in service’ to ensure they remained bright and eye-catching. However, there is superficiality in re-applying the paint when they are devoid of their intended advertising purpose. While repainting projects do demonstrate what impact the signs would once have had, this could also be achieved by creating new signs and allowing the craft skills to flourish and develop in new ways. For the foreseeable future, these repainting projects will continue outside of any regulatory framework. Preservation of these signs does the least amount of damage to the signs themselves so we can enjoy them for years to come!

What are some other ghost signs you’ve seen in Downtown Cape Girardeau? Let us know in the comments!

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