“Let Me Tell You” is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They publish each Wednesday, so you’re hearing from us each week. Last month, Things to Do Editor Rossilynne Skena Culgan posited that we need to have a talk about the overload of immersive experiences.
Ghosts lurk among New York City’s buildings in wispy white colors telling tales of a different era in our city’s life—for those who are willing to pay attention, that is.
Painted on the sides of brick buildings, these old phantoms, called “ghost signs” or vintage signs, once advertised products in the way digital billboards do today. There’s a Sweet’N Low sign in Brooklyn, a faded Able Steel Equipment Co. ad in Long Island City, a Koppers’ Chocolate logo in the West Village and so many more throughout the city.
To some, these signs may serve as only background noise in an already crowded visual landscape. But to ghost sign hunters like me, they’re works of art and markers of history that fade year after year and are constantly under threat as development demolishes old buildings.
These signs, quickly hand-scrawled onto brick walls by so-called “walldogs” in the 1910s-1930s, publicized products or businesses. As the billboards of their time, they advertised everything from dresses and apartments to piano movers and funeral homes. Though some signs predate even the 1910s and some continued to be painted by hand after the 1930s, the Depression decimated the sign-painting industry. As businesses closed, the need waned for a painter to perch on rickety scaffolding to create an advertisement. The vinyl plotter, invented in the 1980s, dealt another blow to any remaining sign painters.
These days, the signs are being painted over, demolished or hidden as new buildings rendered in glass and metal replace older brick structures nationwide. It’s progress, no doubt, but I wish developers and planners across the U.S. would take ghost signs into account as a part of historic preservation when considering new developments. These signs are an important part of our heritage.
They appear when we least expect them, seeming to jump out of hiding and interrupt our daily lives to remind us that everyday life in America looked so different (the omnipresent tobacco ads) and sometimes so similar (handbags, coffee, and chocolate are still in demand) a century ago.
In this way, ghost signs transform urban spaces into museums. They help us to remain present within the built environment and public space, yanking our attention away from screens to engage in history. They make us stop and look.
With my fellow ghost sign hunters, I am on a quest to document as many as I can find. For me, this hobby is part digital curation, part scavenger hunt and part historic preservation. It forces me to look up and stay present rather than fixating on my phone’s constant bleating.
Ask any ghost sign hunter—it’s impossible to say how many are in our ranks, but there are 117,000 photos tagged #ghostsign on Instagram—and they will have a story about a beloved sign that’s now gone. I know one ghost sign fan, Christian Shaknaitis, (he’s also a phenomenal sign painter) who loved a now-hidden ghost sign so ardently that he had an image of it tattooed on his body.
The destruction of ghost signs in midtown Manhattan during the 1990s sparked Walter Grutchfield to start documenting them, and he’s photographed thousands since then. Grutchfield, now in his 80s, told me that most of the signs he once photographed have since vanished.
Construction near Lincoln Center in the early 2000s revealed Grutchfield’s favorite sign, which advertised Hunter Baltimore Rye in unusually vivid reds, yellows, and blues and featured a stately man riding a horse. After just a few months, the sign was covered again by a new building. Perhaps someday decades in the future, we’ll see it again.
Ghost signs transform urban spaces into museums. They help us to remain present within the built environment and public space, yanking our attention away from screens to engage in history.
Even if the wrecking ball doesn’t threaten your favorite sign, the harsh reality is that rain, snow and ice will eventually wear away at the paint. Over the years, Grutchfield has witnessed signs fade in the weather, sometimes leaving fragments of words to decipher. To him, that’s just “part of the intrigue.”
So far, I’ve found nearly 200 signs, shared on my Instagram account, @ghostsigngrrl. I spotted most of these signs around New York City, in my hometown of Pittsburgh and on travels across the country. Ghost signs are most common in older cities; Cleveland and Denver, in particular, offer some fascinating examples. And when I can’t figure out what a sign says, I’ll post it on Instagram to crowdsource ideas. Without fail, fellow ghost sign fans and I figure it out, as if we’re working on a collective crossword.
I hope you’ll keep an eye out for other ghost signs when you walk around the city. These relics of a bygone era deserve our attention and affection, as they are both art and history. They reveal a slice of life from a century ago. Ghost signs are more than monuments to capitalism; they’re markers of our history inviting us to ask what has changed and what has remained. Those very questions are fundamental to the design and redesign of cities. These ephemeral works of art are pages from history books scrawled onto buildings.
They deserve our attention and adoration.
Time Out tip: Maybe vintage signs don’t excite you, and that’s totally OK. What else can you find around town to keep an eye out for? I have one friend who’s constantly on the hunt for coins on sidewalks and another who finds fruit in the wackiest places around NYC (in puddles, on top of newspaper stands, etc.). A few other ideas: Playing cards, lost mittens or even disparate things in the same color palette. Keeping your eyes peeled for something like this makes walking to the subway or running errands way more fun and helps you stay present in this fast-paced city of ours.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.