Book review: Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs

Review by Nick Gadd

For six decades, a painted sign over a milk bar in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury showed a little boy tucking into a breakfast of porridge. The brightly painted sign was an advertisement for Creamota, a brand of porridge oats, and the long after the brand disappeared, the sign survived. It was a much-loved part of the local environment, and when the building’s owner proposed to paint it over on the grounds of safety, there was a community reaction. “It’s enough to make you choke on your weeties,” the local press reported. A grassroots campaign raised more than 500 signatures on a petition to save the sign, but this was unsuccessful, and the boy and his breakfast were  obliterated in 2009.

Why did the loss of an old advertising sign provoke such concern? Well, for one thing, the Porridge Boy was probably unique: no similar Creamota sign has been discovered in Melbourne. It was a fine example of the sign-writer’s art, an expressive illustration executed in colours that kept their vividness for over 60 years. It provided locals with a sense of community history, evoking days when local shopping was done at small milk bars rather than in giant supermarkets. And in a time when the same brands and shops appear in all suburbs, when homogeneous ‘non-places’ are everywhere, the sign gave Thornbury a certain uniqueness. For all these reasons, the Creamota sign had been listed in various heritage studies, which turned out to be of no help in saving it.

The story of Porridge Boy is told by Leisa Clements in her essay, ‘Signs of Life: Recognising the Significance of Melbourne’s Historic Painted Signs’. Clements investigates the ways that ghost signs are protected, or more usually neglected, by heritage management agencies. Ghost signs are almost always unrecorded in heritage listings, she writes, even if they are exceptional – another case in point being the famous ‘Mazda Cat’ on Elizabeth Street, which makes an appearance in the 1959 movie, On the Beach and is still visible today. Clements writes: “Being neither moveable objects (like neon signs) nor an inherent part of architectural fabric, historic painted signs aren’t necessarily easy to categorise, particularly if they are to be recognised as significant in their own right … heritage recording has been biased towards architectural elements and fabric.” Basically, ghost signs receive very little protection, however unique they are or how much people love them. Many (including me) would agree with Clements in her call for heritage frameworks to be adapted to recognise the cultural value of these painted signs.

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The Mazda cat in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, as it appears in On the Beach

Clements’ essay appears in Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs. This excellent anthology, edited by Stefan Schutt, Sam Roberts and Leanne White,  declares itself to be “the first scholarly collection dedicated to the urban traces commonly known as ‘ghost signs’.” Some of the names here will be familiar to aficionados: Roberts is the curator of the magnificent online ghostsigns archive, while Victoria University academic Schutt writes the blog Finding the Radio Book. The editors  have gathered a diverse group of essays that approach the topic of ghost signs from three perspectives: social, cultural, and historical.

Why is it that ghost signs appeal to so many of us? The question is explored by Anthony Love, a professor of psychology, in his intriguing essay ‘The Ghost in the Sign: a Psychological Perspective on Ghost Signs’.  It is sometimes claimed that a liking for old signage is mere nostalgia, a romantic hankering after a lost past, originating in a reluctance to engage with the present. Not so, argues Love, who makes a case for nostalgia as a more complex and bittersweet emotion which “can help build and maintain a sense of self-identity, develop an appreciation of cultural meaning, and foster close relationships”. In times of dislocation and change, a trace of the past – such as a ghost sign – can evoke warm memories (of a person, a place, a bowl of porridge perhaps?) which nurture an individual’s sense of security and stability. Ghost signs provoke emotional responses, and become part of the complex ‘cognitive maps’ which we use to build a personal understanding of our environment. Few would deny, as Love writes, that “attachment to place plays a very important role in our sense of personal identity”. This explains why the people of Thornbury were saddened by the loss of their Porridge Boy (and why I have been saddened by the loss of similar signage in my part of the world): it feels as if some of your own memories and experiences have been blanked out.

It should be remembered, though, that no great claims were made for these signs when they were originally created. They were intended, in most cases, to be short-lived, and were painted by professionals for mainly commercial reasons: to sell tea, soap, porridge, or Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills. The experiences of signwriters are recounted in ‘That One Up There Was Mine’ by academic Stefan Schutt and signwriting veteran, Tony Mead. This chapter particularly appealed to me, not just because it begins with a discussion of a palimpsest of ghost signs in my home suburb, Yarraville, evidence of a century of commercial activity in one building; but also because I too consider it important to remember the people who painted them, skilled artisans working in difficult conditions, creating memorable artworks while atop a ladder in the wind and the hot sun.

For Schutt and Mead, ghost signs are “signifiers of both lost livelihoods and the skills they represent”.  To become a signwriter in the early and mid years of the 20th century required a long apprenticeship. It was also one of the few trades that offered a potential career to young men of working-class backgrounds who liked art. As Mead recounts: “At this time everything was still done by hand. No computers were within sight … Even the metal panels had to be prepped and primed and coated. There were no shortcuts – guys took a lot of pride in their work.” But when the recession hit in the early 90s, coinciding with the rise of digital technology, it spelt the end for traditional signwriters. “Everyone just seemed to lose the plot,” Mead recalls. “They weren’t interested in doing the really nice hand lettering jobs or no one wanted it.” Thankfully, the position has changed: there has been a revival in hand-painted signage, although these days there is a conflict, Mead says, between the traditionally trained old guard and the young punks who have taught themselves. “The new school guys get the coverage and applause in the media, and I think the old guys who haven’t had the chance to do it for a while are pretty annoyed about that.” Reflecting on Mead’s words, Schutt asks: “Is this homage, appropriation, or both?” leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The essays are not limited to the ghost signs of Melbourne. The 32 authors range far afield: Yvette Williams Elliott writes movingly about the radical utopian dreams embodied in a sign for a long-gone London Co-operative store; Marie Wong writes on the ghost signs of Seattle; other essays take us to Lima, Peru and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  A rather sad essay by three Belgian authors describes the ultimately futile attempt to preserve a historic ghost sign near Antwerp. The community rallied behind the slogan: “Together, we will save the Gevaert sign!” Spoiler alert: they didn’t. The essays range quite widely in approach, and in writing style: some make more use than others of academic jargon, but most are quite accessible to the non-specialist reader.

An entertaining, provocative essay by Meredith Kasabian on ‘Faux Ghost Signs’ is an interesting counterpoint to those mentioned above. Kasabian is a painter of new signs that are distressed to look old, and she cheerfully aligns herself with the new school of signwriters: “this trend for nostalgia has been great for business” she writes, and goes on to say that “the commission of faux ghost signs amounts to a fair portion of revenue for many sign painters”. This search for a retro, hand-made image, desirable because it suggests authenticity, is paradoxically pursued by the creation of something inauthentic – a fake, in other words. For Kasabian, this is merely the latest manifestation of the long-running desire in the west to fetishise decay – like the taste for ruins in the late 18th century, which led wealthy landowners to build sham ruins in their gardens.  Kasabian describes how her firm was hired by a hip London restaurant to create “a space that evoked nostalgia and also wanted to instantly age the restaurant so it didn’t seem as new as it actually was.” It now has a convincingly faded and grimy faux ghost sign that attracts much appreciation from tourists.

The editors of this collection have done a great job in bringing together a fascinating range of perspectives on ghost signs. Many if not all of the articles were written by authors who are plainly infatuated with the topic, as are the thousands of enthusiasts who wander the streets of world cities, seeking out and photographing ghost signs and posting their images online. Often, the habit begins with a single sign, then gradually takes over one’s life. Many ghost sign hunters will recognise themselves in the anecdote recounted by Veerle De Houwer: “Edward Deschepper, a retired school teacher, noticed a prominent ghost sign on the side of a house … which bore a strong resemblance to the famous cartoon character of Olive Oyl … he set out to find out more about it.” Three years later, Mr Deschepper was leading a ghost sign conservation group.

It is a shame that the price of this book – $200 for the hardback! – will discourage many ghost sign fans from buying it. However, some chapters can be found online, and you could encourage your local university library to obtain a copy. I found much to enjoy and reflect on in these thought-provoking pages.

Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs edited by Stefan Schutt, Sam Roberts and Leanne White. (Routledge, 2017).