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Pale as a Ghost Sign

Nostalgically seeking the faded, painted advertising signs of decades past

By Tamia Stinson · April 3rd, 2013 · Cover Story
ghostsigns_dennisonhotel_jf2Dennison Hotel sign, 716 Main St., Downtown - Photo: Jesse Fox

The old Dennison Hotel sign, hand-painted on the side of an 1800s brick building on Main Street, usually makes people take notice — if not for the building’s lack of residents (the hotel closed years ago), then for the numbers it advertises: “Dennison Hotel, 105 Rooms, 60 Baths.” If you do the math, that amounts to .57 baths per room — hardly luxury accommodations. 

And this sign is not the only painted advertisement alluding to a now-defunct echo of the city’s past. There are plenty of these signs — known as “ghost signs” — slowly being worn away by years of corrosion all around Cincinnati. 

Here in the Midwest, we’re sitting on a virtual treasure trove of the American history as told by these fading signs. When painted advertisements reached their peak as a commercial art form in the 1930s and ’40s, companies paid landlords for access to the sides of brick buildings and barns to paint advertisements. Cincinnati, St. Louis and Baltimore were some of the most “brickified” cities in the country and are thus home to a plethora of brick ads — and much of the art still remains visible today, even if the businesses aren’t.

Garnering what could be considered a cult following in both America and Europe, ghost signs have Pinterest pages, websites and books dedicated to documenting their existence as well as fighting for their preservation and restoration.

Of the slowly vanishing ghost signs still lingering in Cincinnati, everybody seems to have a favorite. The American Sign Museum’s founder Tod Swormstedt is partial to the Liberty Tire sign that wraps around the better part of a deserted building at the corner of Spring Grove Avenue; ghost sign blogger Bill Rinehart, the eyes and ears behind the blog The Writing on the Walls (fadedadart.blogspot.com), credits the aforementioned Dennison Hotel sign with piquing his interest; and co-owner of design studio VisuaLingual, Maya Drozdz, who documents ghost signs nationwide on her blog (visualingual.wordpress.com), has always been drawn to the Sam Caldwell & Co. sign on Walnut Street downtown. 

But what’s the story behind these fading pieces of our history? Many of the businesses featured in these faded advertisements no longer exist, and finding information about them can be difficult. 

“People didn’t take photos or write a lot of details about these different companies back when they were new,” Rinehart says. “A lot of that is day-to-day history that gets lost in the shuffle.” 

But the fact that the signs are still here, beckoning ghost sign hunters with precious bits of lost history, assures that some details will be researched and remembered.

Advertising with Painted Signs 

We’ve become so accustomed to technology’s in-your-face advertising that most people have stopped noticing the flashing banner ads on their favorite website. But, back at the turn of the century, signs painted on buildings offered plenty of exposure, especially in areas with high foot traffic. 

Most wall advertisements were commissioned by local and national companies to draw attention to their products, and an eye-catching sign in a good location could result in thousands of impressions per day. 

The signs themselves were painted by “walldogs,” freelance painters employed by various sign-making companies. Many sign painters were artists in their own right, responsible for creating complex designs that would show off a product and grab the attention of passers-by. And sign painting required a specific set of skills: math to ensure letters were spaced properly and an understanding of contrast and color theory to ensure visibility. Around the beginning of the 20th century, many fine artists were also sign painters — it was even rumored that Norman Rockwell got his start as a walldog.

Making a living as a walldog often meant a rough life — the term even references that idea that they had to “work like dogs” to scrape by. There was no pre-mixed paint before the 1930s, so sign painters had to mix their own using white lead, a toxic compound. There was no electric scaffolding, so they often risked their lives building and climbing structures tall enough to reach the top of the buildings they painted. In those days there was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) either, so safety was not guaranteed. They had to work through all types of weather, and sometimes even travel town-to-town to find work. It was hard living. 

Popular Signs and Sign Painters

In 1939, more than 25 companies and individuals were listed in the business and inhabitants’ reference book Williams’ Cincinnati Directory as sign painters and manufacturers.

Cincinnati’s abundance of large brick buildings and reputation as an industrial hub made commercial sign painting a relatively popular occupation in town.

Like any other art form, each painter had his or her own style, and you could often tell who painted a sign just by looking at the layout, colors and shape of the letters. The premiere sign painters in the Cincinnati area included Gus Holthaus (whose company, Holthaus Signs, was started by his father and continues today as Holthaus-Lackman), Fred Lemon, Bill Haas and Charles Kieger, all of whose work can still be seen around the city. 

Holthaus painted the Gibson and Perin sign, visible when facing east at Fourth and Elm streets; Lemon painted the David Shoe Co. sign at Central Avenue and Livingston Street; Haas painted the Dennison Hotel sign on Main Street; and Kieger painted the Sam Caldwell & Co. sign at Court and Walnut streets — each sign has similar large, block letters, but each also has a personal flair. 

The Dennison Hotel sign on Main Street is one of the best-known ghost signs in the area, but the original Dennison House opened at Fifth Street and Western Row (Central Avenue) around 1817. Haas painted the sign at the hotel’s current location on Main Street, where it moved in 1822. 

In the early part of the 20th century, the Dennison was featured prominently in the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Hotel Gossip column, which chronicled the comings and goings of business travelers and guests at hotels around the city. A soap opera-worthy headline from the Aug. 4, 1905 edition read: “Attorney Spengel Found His Wife With Toledo Man and He Has Begun Suit For Divorce.” The story followed: “There was a dramatic scene in the Dennison Hotel yesterday afternoon when Carl Spengel, a patent attorney and draughtsman in the Atlas Bank Building, accompanied by Joseph Wappenstein, head of a private detective agency, found in one of the rooms Mrs. Spengel and a man who registered at the hotel desk as M. L.” Talk about drama! 

Sam Caldwell started Sam Caldwell & Co. Painters and Decorators in 1933, and for years this company held the contract to paint the outfield signs at Crosley Field, including advertisements for Heidelberg Beer, Coney Island and Marlboro Cigarettes. Williams’ Cincinnati Directory from 1939 lists the address of the company as 923 Walnut St., at the intersection of East Court Street, and the Sam Caldwell & Co. sign there, which is still visible today, was painted by Kieger.

The Little Kings sign visible from Central Parkway would have been commissioned by parent company Schoenling. Founded in 1933 as the Schoenling Brewing & Ice Company, the brewing company was a spin-off of E. Schoenling’s Coal & Ice Company. The company constructed an entirely new plant for making craft beer once prohibition ended, and then built a new bottling plant a year later. The distinctive 7 oz. green bottles of Little Kings Cream Ale were first produced by Schoenling in the 1950s. Hudepohl combined with Schoenling Brewing Company in 1986, and Christian Moerlein Brewing Co. bought the brand in 2009.

Philco signs like the one painted on an abandoned building near Findlay Market were all over the Midwest by the mid-20th century. Founded in Philadelphia in 1892 to produce carbon arc lamps, Philco grew from a small business into an electronics empire with Philco brand televisions, radios, air conditioners and other products flooding the emerging market in the ’40s and ’50s. Today, Philco aficionados congregate online and in person to show off their vintage finds and share advice on repairing old pieces.

The David Shoe Co. sign on Central Avenue was painted by Lemon, the prolific sign painter. The David Shoe Company got in a bit of trouble in 1990 when one-time owner Sol Weisenberg was indicted for alleged trafficking in counterfeit athletic shoes and money laundering. Since then the building has been everything from artist’s lofts to the birthplace of small businesses, and the sign remains.  

The Apex Furniture Manufacturing Company building on McMicken was originally the icehouse for the Christian Moerlein Brewery. Apex Furniture founder and president Israel Seibert immigrated to the United States with his wife Florence in 1952 after they’d both survived more than four years in concentration camps. Mr. Seibert picked Cincinnati because he noticed Hebrew Union College on a map of the area.

Before it was the Machine Flats, the building on Colerain Avenue in Camp Washington was the Samuel L. Tatum Co. In 1859 Samuel Tatum established a foundry that was widely known for manufacturing sewing machine stands. Tatum was a well-respected businessman who acted as director of three additional companies as well as serving on the boards of the Art Museum, the YMCA and the Avondale City Council. You can see the Tatum Co. ghost sign from the back of the building.

Paramount Distillers’ history dates back to 1934 when J. F. Moessmer founded the company in Cleveland, a month after the repeal of prohibition. The series of ads for Paramount Vodka and Brandy along Clifton Avenue, as well as the large “Anything Goes” vodka ad on Elm Street near Findlay, are classic examples of eye-catching painted ads.

Modern-Day Appeal 

Interest in these ghost signs has hit its stride as urban redevelopment spreads, sometimes removing the old structures hosting the historical ads, while sometimes revealing wall signs that have been hidden for years. The question is, when we remove or recover the ghost signs, do we try to preserve them? Recreate them?

Drozdz started blogging pictures of ghost signs five years ago. For her, it’s not just a hobby centered on taking neat pictures of old ads. 

“Now the places I walk by have a little more meaning,” she says. “It makes the whole place richer because it’s not just the physical environment, you end up learning more about the heritage of the place. These signs are almost like six degrees of separation, cutting through layers of history.”

That history — now shared online with anyone seeking to find it —attracts people from all over the country and the world. 

“Every once in awhile people will get in touch with me and say ‘My great-grandfather founded this business,” Drozdz says. “It’s nice to be able to give people a glimpse of what it is now. It gives more nuance to all this stuff that’s ever-present.”

Swormstedt understands the temptation to repaint signs in the name of preservation but also appreciates the history of faded paint on brick. 

“We have over 600 signs [at the American Sign Museum]. We’ve repainted five,” he says. “By repainting a sign, you erase its history.”

Architect and developer Mike Uhlenhake, who has lived in Over-the-Rhine for years and has seen the changes in the neighborhood, says, “Often, too much cleaning of buildings diminishes some aged character, including ghost signs. Sometimes beautiful aged, cracked and peeling paint on metal columns, brick, wood and plaster has an inherent aged character which would be missed.”

For all the interest in maintaining and preserving ghost signs, some are still falling by the wayside. The old Belmont Cafe sign on a building that was near the corner of 12th and Race streets gave way to the new School for Creative and Performing Arts, and the old White Star Laundry sign on Vine Street between 13th and 14th streets recently disappeared when the building was rehabbed.

Tips for Would-Be Ghost (Sign) Hunters

If you’re interested in exploring the world of ghost signs, the pros have some tips. “Look up.” Rinehart says. “They’re all over, just open your eyes and notice things. It could be as simple as walking on a different side of the street than you usually do.”

And even if you think you’ve exhausted the possibilities of discovery, keep looking. 

“What really surprises me is that I’m still finding signs that have escaped me,” Rinehart says. “There’s not a street downtown that I haven’t been on, but I found one today that I completely missed. How I missed it I don’t know!” 

Having a way to document your discoveries helps as well. “Because I had a camera and because I had a blog, I was more motivated to notice stuff,” Drozdz says. 

Plus, it’s inspiring to think that your interest might help someone else. “You put this content out there and people come out of the woodwork,” she adds. 

Like these ghost signs, our memories of the small everyday things fade, which is why it’s important to appreciate them now. 

“There was something here before us, there will be something here after us,” Rinehart says. “It gives you a little perspective.” ©



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