To the letter

20 May 2019

Signs of every description. Image: The Signist by R. Henderson 1903

Seeking out Glasgow’s ghost signs and the tradition they represent

You might not know what a ghost sign is. But you wouldn’t be the only one. When I spoke to people on the streets of Glasgow and asked: “What do you know about ghost signs?” the responses were varied. They ranged from the confused: “Never heard of it.” To the funny: “As in paranormal activity?” To the relatively well informed: “I think I read an article about it once, about signs beneath signs.”

“Ghost sign” in this instance does not refer to indications of paranormal activity, but instead to the fading signs of businesses long closed that adorn cities all over the world.

Glasgow, in particular, is full of unique advertising artwork. Many of the city’s Victorian buildings still hold remnants of businesses long since gone. These remnants, fading “ghost signs”, can be found sprinkled throughout the city.

Dairy ghost sign in Partick. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

The first ghost sign I came across in Glasgow was a sign for a dairy grocer in Partick. It read “Dairy BS Padda & Co Groceries and Provisions”. It struck me as beautiful, so I took a photo and went on with my day. It was a year later when speaking with friends one afternoon, I mentioned the sign and the Sloth’s very own editor-in-chief, Dora Pongracz, mentioned that she had seen the sign many times when the shop below it served coffee and food.

She said: “I walked by the shop quite a few times and it was always so busy. The decoration from the outside looked so nice, it was very natural. There were so many plants and all the chairs and tables seemed to be vintage or old fashioned so it looked so good with the ghost sign. A proper travel back in time while drinking a coffee.”

The coffee shop has since closed, but the sign remains. I walked by recently and it looked like there was some new construction happening, so perhaps another shop will enjoy a life below the Dairy sign.

Not far from the BS Padda & Co Dairy sign you can find an old sign for Hargan’s Dairy at 66 Hyndland Street. It now keeps watch over restaurant Cafezique. The sign’s red paint is peeling a lot, to the point where it now reads “HARGA  ’S DAIRY”, the “N” lost to the elements. I never would have noticed this sign had I not seen the BS Padda & Co sign and begun to investigate ghost signs.

Hargan’s Dairy sign. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

Spotting ghost signs everywhere seems to be a common occurrence once people know about the concept. Earlier this spring when I spoke with Sam Roberts, who runs ghostsigns.co.uk, he warned me that seeing one ghost sign could open my eyes to many more.

Of his own ghost sign awakening, he said: “I was working in the advertising industry and had a personal interest in outdoor advertising, so was always looking at billboards and posters. One day I happened to notice a fading painted wall that, at some point, served as a billboard of sorts. Once sensitised to their presence in the urban landscape I began to notice others, many of which were on roads I’d walked many times.”

Go further towards Glasgow’s city centre and you might run across a striking remnant of the high street heyday of FW Woolworth & Co. Tucked behind the busy Charing Cross intersection are three fading signs for the price of one. The building they adorn once housed a branch of the wildly successful Woolworth’s department stores.

Woolworths on Sauchiehall in 1935. Photograph: Mitchell Library

Now all that’s left of the store are three signs on the back of the building. One says “F.W. Woolworth & Co Ltd”. If you look closely enough you can see that, at one point in time, the sign was repainted and the ghostly letters of the previous version peek out from the more visible lettering. The sign is in remarkably good condition with only some minor wear to the paint.

F.W. Woolworth & Co sign. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

Just to the left is a sign looking a little more worse for wear. This one says “Goods Entrance” and looks to have been painted directly onto the red sandstone building. The “s” in “goods” is missing, lending an altogether different meaning to the sign’s message than originally intended. The worn sign is surrounded by graffiti, one form of street artwork ceding to another.

Goods Entrance. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

Look a little further down the wall and you’ll see one more sign in the shape of a shield, the colour faded to a military green. It reads “Everything in Window Glass” with a hand pointing to the right at the bottom. Some of the edges have chipped away over time, but the detail and artistry is still clearly visible.

Fading signs from around Glasgow. Photos by: Taylor McDaniel

Many of these signs are the product of traditional signwriting, an art form that has become less common since the advent of vinyl signs. In eras past, most businesses would have had a hand-painted sign on the high street. The artists who created these signs would use paint and brushes and honed skill to create beautiful typography.

Examples of traditional hand lettering. Credit: The Art of Lettering and Sign Painter’s Manual by A.P. Boyce, 1878

Ross Hastie, a traditional sign writer and maker based in Clackmannanshire, keeps this art form alive today by creating beautiful hand painted signs. Hastie’s definition of traditional signwriting is: “The ability to produce a professional looking sign with the most basic tools in an efficient amount of time.”

Hastie started painting signs at just 12 years old and has built a career out of the art form. He was inspired by meeting other sign writers who “made a living on their own terms making pretty looking things.”

A page from The Sign Painter, a Pullman School of Lettering instruction book, 1916. Credit: The Sign Painter, 1916

Another prominent sign painter, Mike Meyer, travels around the world running sign painting and hand lettering workshops. Meyer also became enamoured with the art form at a young age by watching his father, a barber, paint signs in between haircuts. Meyer has been painting signs ever since, and has been featured in a documentary about the sign painting community.

When I asked about the value of teaching this traditional art form, he noted that teaching sign painting is important for restoration purposes, but it also has a more human appeal.

“The art form of sign painting will always be in cultures worldwide. People who make signs and read signs want [that] human element.”

He continued: “The computer can be fast, but does not have soul. It’s just another tool in the sign maker’s tool kit. They need to be educated in the origins of where and how things were made. After they are practiced making things with their own mind and hands then they will understand why it is a great, full, and rewarding profession.”

Mike Meyer at work. Photograph: Mike Meyer

I asked Hastie about the future of signwriting as an art form. He noted that for the form to truly survive, the way we interact with brick and mortar retail would have to change: “The high street will have to change, as you can buy almost everything online cheaper than on the high street now. The high street will have to become a ‘destination’ to remain busy. Shops will have to have a bit of theatre or atmosphere about them to be appealing, visiting a shop has to be an experience rather than simply a box to sell things from. Hand-made signage and advertising [would] add to the overall look and atmosphere of a shop by giving it some authenticity.”

Trying to preserve the traditional signs that are still in existence is a tricky task. The signs often exist on privately owned buildings and can be easily covered up or destroyed through construction or renovation. Glasgow City Heritage Trust’s Ghost Signs of Glasgow project hopes to find a way to document the signs hiding in plain sight in Glasgow, before they disappear.

When the project launched in March, Glasgow City Heritage Trust (GCHT) hoped that it would start a conversation about these visible pieces of Glasgow’s history. Since the launch, the project has mostly operated on social media, where people have been submitting their own ghost sign photos.

Project coordinator, Silvia Scopa, said: “The response has been amazing, everyone is interested and fascinated by ghost signs and old shop fronts. No matter their age or background.”

Scopa dreamed up the project in 2014 while doing an internship as part of her Masters degree.

“[I was] helping with the inventory of historic costumes and I came across a label with the text “G.S. Nicol Glasgow”, the next day walking down Bath Street I saw an enormous ghost sign for the same shop and it was like time travelling!”

Like so many others interested in ghost signs, Scopa started seeing the fading relics everywhere.

“I started to think of a way to create an inventory, trying to involve volunteers and the public. Once I had a plan, I contacted Glasgow City Heritage Trust. They were enthusiastic about it and here we are!”

Scopa hopes to continue crowdsourcing photos and sign locations to create a digital archive of the city’s signs and encourages people to get involved. She said: “Please get involved, be a good ghost sign buster! If you spot a ghost sign or old shop front around glasgow, take a picture and tag us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook at @ghostsignsgla.”

Potential ghost sign busters can also email the project at ghostsigns@glasgowheritage.co.uk.

Scopa hopes that the project will ultimately result in a walking tour and a ghost signs map with historical information about these old signs and shopfronts as well as a comprehensive digital archive of the city’s signs.

The hope is that these sneak peeks into Glasgow’s past will help modern residents connect with the stories of the Second City of the Empire.

While by no means exhaustive, I have complied a map with photos of the signs mentioned above, as well as a few extra, in case any of our readers want to see them for themselves.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Excellent article. Well written. I’ll be on the outlook worldwide.

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