Even in their faded state, the ghost signs have much to tell us about what we once were - about the chocolates we favored (Wilbur's) and the beer we drank (Gretz), about products we made (pianos) and where we made them (13th and Chestnut Streets). All the information is right in front of our eyes, if only we knew where to look and how to read it.
That problem has been solved for us by Lawrence O'Toole, a graphic designer who has just written a guide to the mysterious signs called Fading Ads of Philadelphia (History Press). The book catalogs nearly all the city's surviving advertisements - among them some from recently departed businesses - in color photographs, supplemented by archival images and detailed histories that help exhume the lost meanings of these messages from the past.
A South Philadelphia native, O'Toole said he was drawn to the signs while studying graphic design and architecture at Drexel University. Walking around the city, he was struck by the signs' unusual typefaces and artful typography. So much of the original content had disappeared that the remaining patches of letters and colors were almost like abstract paintings. Yet within these blurs, O'Toole saw a whole history of Philadelphia's material culture.
Whenever he spotted a sign, O'Toole would take a photograph. "But while I was doing that," he recalled, "I started seeing buildings I liked coming down. The Jack Frost sugar refinery and others. When I thought about the age of the buildings and how long the signs had been there, it was just painful to me. I thought, 'I should gather these up before they disappear.' "
O'Toole decided to catalog Philadelphia's entire inventory of ghost signs for his thesis project. That was 1998.
After submitting a version for his senior project, he realized there was more work to be done. It wasn't enough to just photograph the signs. He also needed to understand their history. But many of the signs were so old that no one could recall anything about the brands they advertised.
Organized by neighborhood, his book is as much a detective story as a guidebook. O'Toole began doing research in libraries and archives, hoping to piece together the full texts of the signs. He was lucky to uncover several archival photos of signs as they originally looked. He cross-referenced surveyors' maps to learn the names of long-departed manufacturers.
Photographing the signs was a challenge, too. Sometimes right after a rainstorm, or when the light shone at a certain angle, he would discover signs he had overlooked. Even with all his effort, many advertisements remain inscrutable blurs.
As he worked on the book and an accompanying blog, ghostsignproject.com, O'Toole, 36, was also pursuing a career in graphic design. He now works in New York City, where he is often involved in designing advertisements for billboards, which are printed in sections on vinyl and pasted up for short periods of time.
Will we ever feel as nostalgic for billboards as we do today for painted signs?
"There is more appreciation for the tactile quality of the painted signs," O'Toole acknowledged.
The more that screens compete for our eyeballs, the greater the interest in the old technologies of letterpress printing and hand-lettered signs.
"Things seem to have a little more perceived value when they're handmade," O'Toole said.
Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2702, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ingasaffron.