Anyone following me on twitter will know of my enduring fascination with ghostsigns. It has also appeared on this blog a few times. These traces of the past are, in my view, something worth capturing and preserving (or at least recording, though I think some need to be preserved/protected). They are an ephemeral but indicative window on past worlds. And if we don’t record them, then where are we going to get our retro advertisements of the future?
So it was with real interest and delight that I received a copy of a new (well, an updated Second Edition) of a book focusing on London’s ghost signs. Helen Cox’s Fading London, published by the History Press in 2019 is a lovely little book full of photographs of some of the best and most interesting ghostsigns in the city.
These signs were once commonplace as many old photographs show. They were also acts of creativity and works of art. This book focuses on painted brick signs, as Helen Cox notes in the introduction, a long existent form of advertising initially popularised when hanging signs were banned for being too dangerous (they kept dropping on people). Painting onto brick, perhaps time and again to attract the interest of passing people and promote products or ideas is a very public statement, and one intending to have a little more permanence than today’s billboards or projections. Along with retail shop ghostsigns we should treasure what we can find of these.
Fading London is organised into 7 sections. The first covers prominent brands including examples of Hovis, Bovril and Brymay matches. Each example is a photograph and some details of location and history. The next five chapters are a geography lesson of London (central, north, south, east, west). The final chapter covers the very thorny topic of imitation, restoration and preservation. When does a ghostsign fail to exist or become a new sign if restored or over-painted?
There are some fascinating examples and photographs in the book. A few of my favourites (including some I have seen) are reproduced below. But, don’t take my word for it; if you are interested in retail and advertising history, or simply the past, then buy this book on ghostsigns and get out there recording them before they disappear.
Cox H. (2019) Fading London: The City’s Vanishing Ghost Signs. History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-9259-6