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Ghost Signs

March 2023
1min read

Brick Wall Signs in America

by Wm. Stage; ST Publications (407 Gilbert Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45202); 109 pages.

Even in a town that devours itself as voraciously as New York, dim survivors everywhere remind us of the city that was here before. When the noon light falls on the brick front of an art gallery near the American Heritage offices, you can make out on the legend: “To Let/Carriages/Coupes/Hansoms/Victorias/Light Wagons/Horses taken in board by the month.” A building is torn down, and there, surprisingly bright on the suddenly naked wall of its neighbor, the legend SEGARS or WHEELWRIGHT can be seen for a few months before a new building rises to shield it from the elements for another century. For five years or so the editors of American Heritage have puzzled over how to prepare a story on this directory of a vanished civilization; but we could devise no way short of the insanely expensive expedient of hiring a photographer to travel across the country scanning old brick walls. So we are grateful to Wm. Stage, who has done just that.

Stage has gone from St. Louis to Peoria, Portland to Philadelphia; he has consulted with such specialists as Harley E. Warrick, the sole remaining Mail Pouch sign painter; and he has gathered an impressive compilation of the fading relics: the book is full of worn brick walls bearing square-shouldered letters saying HORSE SHOERS and ICE COLD BOTTLED BEER 5 c and MOUND CITY BUGGY COMPANY .

The author is generous with tips for those who would follow in his archeological footsteps: Cincinnati, for instance, “abounds with vintage wall signs. Vast portions of the city, in fact, remind one of nothing so much as a field museum of nineteenth and early twentieth century architectural styles.” It is in Cincinnati that Stage found the H. H. Meyer Packing Company’s sign. Not content merely to enjoy the painting’s brace of partridges “the finesse of which cannot be attenuated by six decades of exposure to the elements,” Stage managed to track down Gus Holthaus, whose grandfather Arnold painted the sign. Another veteran sign painter explained succinctly why this pleasing tradition is on the verge of extinction: “The story I heard on CocaCola is that they stopped their wall ads because their logo was so identifiable after fifty years that people didn’t exactly see it anymore unless it was on TV with a lot of people running around.”

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