Old treasures: Finding, photographing advertising signs

Linda Henderson
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Hi, my name is Linda and I have a problem. I collect pictures of old signs, and my favorite finds are “ghost signs,” signage painted on the sides of brick buildings. These signs were a way for merchants to either advertise their store, services or merchandise. Some of the most famous signs were for soft drink trademarks and slogans.  

Before there were billboards along highways and interstates, these signs were the way to attract business for products, goods and services available in the town. Over the years they have been hidden or have been demolished as new buildings made of steel have replaced the old brick building. A majority of these signs were painted in the early to mid-1900s. They became less popular as a way of advertising as neon signs became more common. 

Conway

Wall signs might have been painted by a local, but many were painted by skilled wall painters known as “wall dogs.” They were called wall dogs because they worked long hours, travelled from town to town and many times painted a whole wall sign in a day. They were either hired by the owner of the business or hired by a company to paint a specific trademark like Coca-Cola.   

As time has gone by, these signs have faded and decayed, or walls have been remodeled or painted over.  Many of the signs only remain because they were painted with lead-based paints. Some old signs have been revealed when walls next to old buildings have been removed.  

This happened a few years ago in Little Rock. A Dr Pepper sign from the 1930s was discovered when a building was demolished. The sign was enclosed between two exterior buildings’ walls. The sign’s beautiful colors had been preserved because of its enclosure. Other signs have been exposed when the paint that was painted over them starts to degrade and flake away, revealing the sign underneath.   

Recently, in some small towns across Arkansas, I have seen old signs being repainted. It appears that attempts to match the color and the designs of the old signs are being made. It is wonderful to see that towns are making an effort to preserve these hand-painted relics of last century icons. Other towns are attempting to preserve the actual sign with products to stabilize the paint as well as the masonry that the sign is painted on.  

There are so many things to see and discover when out exploring old highways and the older parts of towns in the 501. Ghost signs have an almost haunting appearance; they tell a story about past commerce and are the billboards of times gone by. A few remain legible and retain their original paint in the 501, but most have likely been torn down or have completely faded away.

I suggest you keep your eyes open and scan old buildings, especially in the business part of towns; or peep into an alleyway for flaking paint and fading long forgotten logos. You might find an old treasure, and if you do, drop me an email because my name is Linda and I have a problem . . . I collect pictures of old signs and ghost signs.

Bald Knob