As readers of this blog will know, I have always had an interest in the history of retailing and companies and businesses of the past. A good example has been the ongoing work with Neil Tyler around Sanders Bros, but my interest is wider than that.
Thanks to the connectivity of Twitter I have become aware of the substantial body of interest around faded retail signs (Ghost Signs) , and in particular the work and energy of Sam Roberts. His fascination and involvement far outstrips mine, but I do share a view that these “ghosts” or “whispers from the past” are important and interesting. People’s reactions to the signs is a reflection of this and the strong feelings they can evoke.
After a recent exchange about the sign in the picture above, and other spottings whilst out and about in London and Perth, I thought it might be good to invite Sam to contribute to this blog. I was delighted when he said “yes”. His personal account below “Ghost Signs story (so far)” outlines his developing interest in the subject, as well as some of the innovative methods of recording and capturing what are far too often ephemera.
“Eleven years ago I chanced upon a sign painted on a local building saying ‘Fount Pens Repaired’. Its faded appearance and slogan piqued my curiosity and it wasn’t long before I’d noticed a handful of others, each aging gracefully and representing some long-lost business in the area.
My initial searches online led me to the term ‘ghost sign’ and on this basis I reached out to friends, family and contacts in the advertising industry in an attempt to find out more about them. The response was short on historical context, but rich in personal connections and the sharing of locations. It seemed that most people could recall one close to them, or one from their youth that they remembered passing on a familiar journey. Many had strong personal and community connections to these old painted signs, and this inspired me to do more work to document and research them. The warm feelings that people have towards ghost signs has remained a motivating factor in all that have done, and continue to do, with them.
Before long I had noted locations sent to me on the London A to Z and would use my free time to cycle around, visit and photograph them. Inevitably, en route to one sign, I would pass others and I soon had a growing collection of material. I discovered blogging as a cost-effective way of sharing my research and discoveries. This allowed me to publish material and reach people that were outside of my immediate personal network. More locations and images came my way as a result, including those from much further afield e.g. France and the USA, which remain two of the top countries for spotting ghost signs. The blog (www.ghostsigns.co.uk/blog) continues to this day and now features material from all six continents.
While I enjoyed the process of collecting material and publishing the blog, I was always conscious that this could easily be lost if something happened to me. This led to me reaching out to the History of Advertising Trust to explore the options available to develop a more professional, and institutionalised, archive of material. The end result was an online archive documenting over 1,000 locations across the UK and Ireland, with material submitted by members of the public. The process of creating it was used as a case study in crowd-sourcing and the interactions of amateur (me) and institutional (the History of Advertising Trust) collections.
Following a period volunteering in Cambodia (where I published a book about their painted signs) I returned to London. While I was proud of the blog and the archive, I wanted to do something that would get people out on the streets looking at ghost signs in their natural habitat, rather than on screens, as I think this is a very different experience. My walking tours were the result of this, and these involved more detailed local historical research to compliment the more general introduction to ghost signs that the tours offer. While I only run the tours once each month, I have now digitised them to allow wider access via an app that features my two walks and includes contemporary photos and links to google street view for those that can’t reach London.
More recently I was involved with a publishing project following an invitation from Melbourne ghost signs enthusiast Stefan Schutt. This was to produce an academic book providing a variety of perspectives on ghost signs. This is now published and, across 22 papers, an international cast of academics and practitioners cover topics ranging from conservation and protection to the roles that ghost signs play in communities and localities. My own paper, co-authored with Geraldine Marshall, provided an opportunity to address the burning question ‘What is a Ghost Sign?’.
I am often asked why I do what I do with ghost signs and I don’t have a solid answer to the question. What started as intrigue into the origins, and decline, of this form of advertising has become an all-consuming part of my life. I am something of a collector at heart and so these signs offer an outlet for these tendencies (currently through my worldwide mapping of locations), but I also find the signs to be beautiful but neglected pieces of history in the public realm. I have seen them lost on a whim of property developers, but stop short of formally campaigning for their protection. My hope is that through my efforts in raising their profile, those that own buildings hosting them will appreciate their historical significance and recognise that they add to, rather than reduce, the value of their property.”
Sam can be found on the web (www.ghostsigns.co.uk), has a blog (www.ghostsigns.co.uk/blog), is on Twitter (@ghostsigns – www.twitter.com/ghostsigns), Facebook (@ghostsigns – www.facebook.com/ghostsigns), Instagram (@mrghostsigns – www.instagram.com/mrghostsigns) and can be emailed (email@example.com).
A selection of ghostsigns from London is available via this dropbox: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/njy55a6o2fvmqut/AAAqAhNkVb4UGh_h0gKaFS5Ca?dl=0
Reference: Schutt S, Roberts S and L White (eds) (2017) Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs. Routledge, Abingdon. ISBN 978-1-138-93468-9.
And if anyone is out and about and sees a Sanders Bros ghost sign please get in touch with me! But here is a recent (tin?) sign from Perth to end with.