In every American city, there are two kinds of small businesses: the ones that line the streets and fill the storefronts today, and the ones that live on from generations past. You already know the first group – they’re the hardware stores, clothing boutiques and indie record stores you frequent on the weekend. But to find the second group, you’ll have to look for the legacy they’ve left behind – their ghost signs.
Ghost signs are old advertisements that were painted directly onto the sides of buildings. Also known as fading ads, these signs are scattered throughout virtually every downtown district in the country, and many of them date back as far as the 1800s. Although the paint has faded over time, these ghost signs bring out the character of Main Street USA and remind us of a simpler time.
Ghost signs often linger atop storefronts and buildings for decades because of the wear-resistant lead paint used at the time of their creation. Their long lifespan has made them iconic images in downtown communities. Now, after generations of fading, some of these recognizable ghost signs are getting a fresh coat of paint as artists in communities across the country set out to revive the historic, local signs.
In Philadelphia, for example, Temple University arts administrator Robert Blackson leads an effort between Temple’s Tyler School of Art and Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program to repaint ghost signs throughout the city. The goal of the program is to revive the neighborhoods and increase local pride within the community by highlighting the businesses that have built and supported the community in the past and the present.
From mom-and-pop diners to father-and-son repair shops, local businesses started with passion, hard work and innovation built the country and the economy from the ground up. They created the booming, entrepreneurial society that exists in the United States today, and they live on today through their fading-yet-iconic ghost signs.