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Saturday, December 2, 2023
Dec. 2, 2023

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Tacoma’s ghost signs ‘whispering slogans that were never intended for our ears’


TACOMA — The Harmon” is brightly inscribed in white paint on an early 20th-century red brick building on Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma. The words cover two faded advertisements that serve as a reminder of what the building used to be.

F.S. Harmon Co. was a leader in Tacoma’s booming furniture manufacturing business during large parts of the 20th century.

The underlying designs on the side of 1944 Pacific Ave. say, “Harmon & Co. Whole Sale Furniture,” advertising a company that went under years ago.

Those faded ads are called ghost signs — painted advertisements that have lost their former marketing glory yet still reside on buildings. Much of the time, such signs have lost their color, full shape or original sentiment.

They are ghosts of what they used to be.

A section of the University of Washington Tacoma campus has the city’s greatest density of ghost signs. Remnants of the West Coast Grocery, Pacific Storage & Transfer and Weigel Candy Co., among others, serve as a visual way-back machine for students as they jump in and out of classes.

“[Ghost signs] are a true look at what was going on back then,” said Chris Staudinger, a historical tour guide in Tacoma. “It’s something difficult to replicate. They feel very sincere.”

Signage painted directly on buildings began as a form of identifying buildings, Michael Sullivan, a public historian of Tacoma told The News Tribune in a phone interview.

“Especially on warehouses and industrial buildings where they weren’t retailing anything,” Sullivan said. “It was more for building identity.”

Around the 1880’s, Tacoma companies began using the signs as advertising. The most common of those were selling tobacco, baking flour and alcohol, Sullivan said.

“In Tacoma, before prohibition and right after, the people that paid sign painters were beer and tobacco companies, Sullivan said. “Those were the big guys.”

‘Most of this is lead’

There’s a reason the old painted ads survive through the years.

“Most of this is lead,” Staudinger said during a recent tour of the Dougan building. “That’s why white last so much longer.”

White-powder lead paint was the base for most sign paint in the early 20th century. The higher the lead concentration, the longer the paint lasted, Staudinger said. The white is much more visible than other colors because it’s uncut white powder lead.

A ghost sign on the inside and outside of the Dougan Building at 1721 Jefferson Ave, built in 1890, is one of Tacoma’s oldest, with parts painted around 1903, according to Staudinger.

The building was used by Pacific Storage & Transfer Co. for 60 years, according to Sullivan. The storefront has held a bottling plant, saloon, coffee and flour wholesaler, vending machine and Otis Elevator Co. local offices.

The original advertisements had multiple colors, though only some of the white lettering remains.

When the University of Washington Tacoma took over parts of the warehouse district in the ‘90s, they had to choose whether to repaint, protect or erase the ghost signs on campus, Sullivan said.

“In the end, the decision was made to seal the signs and keep them frozen in the faded condition they were in,” Sullivan said.

“Their condition would mark the moment when the campus took over buildings that were once warehouses with signs from generations before, selling products that in many cases aren’t even available anymore,” Sullivan said.

While giving tours, Staudinger said, ghost signs are mostly ignored by his clientele. Though some have a deep interest in the relics slowly fading through time.

Sam Roberts has been studying fading ads for almost 20 years. He’s written a book on the subject called, “Ghost Signs: A London Story.”

“They cling to walls, well beyond their use-by date, whispering slogans that were never intended for our ears,” Roberts said.

His interest developed in 2006 after he noticed a fountain pen repair ad on Stoke Newington Church Street in London. Roberts laughed at the thought of someone in the 21st century visiting a shop to repair a fountain pen. From there, he dove into the subject.

Wall Dogs

The painters who made such ads were called wall dogs, said Staudinger. The name came from how they worked like dogs and on the “leashes,” or safety lines, that kept them on walls.

Alex Perry, the owner of a Chicago-based sign company, Right Way Signs, is a modern wall dog.

“There was a sign painter in every community,” Perry told The News Tribune in a phone interview. “That old-school approach to making signs is going away.”

Right Way is family owned, and Perry’s father is what he calls an old-school sign painter. Perry prides himself that his company paints some signs by hand.

“Sign painters were commercial designers — they were the ones designing these advertisements,” Perry said. “These old-school sign painters were trained to do good layouts that read well, that were fun to look at.”

The naturally aged look of ghost signs is sought out by some, Perry said. Right Way clientele will pay to have their logos and signs aged to look older.

Whether it’s a new company trying to give off a mature look or long-time franchise companies providing a veteran aesthetic, the idea is re-created today.

“You can have some kind of tech company move into a new office space, and find a brick wall within their space, and they say, paint our logo like it’s 100 years old,” Perry said.

As a painter and craftsman, Perry appreciates the work and detail that many years ago went into creating what are now ghost signs.

He mentioned an aged 7-up advertisement in Holgate, Ohio, that mesmerized him a decade ago.

“It’s a piece of history in the community, and I don’t want to say it’s going back to a simpler time,” Perry said. “But maybe for a lot of people, it is. Before the digital exhaustion that we’re all living through.”

Gerardo Pena, a local muralist in Tacoma, spoke to The News Tribune about the ads and described them as giving a certain gritty aesthetic to the city.

“It’s cool, seeing them slowly fade away through time and evolve, like an organism,” Pena said. “It adds to the character of the city and the history of it.”

While the ghost signs of Tacoma have witnessed considerably more time than anything the 31-year-old artist has created, he compares the two, considering ghost signs art.

“It is easy to forget or overlook what came before,” Roberts said. “I value the aesthetic qualities of ghost signs, and the stories they can tell if we just stop, look up and listen.”

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