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The ghost signsof Tamaqua

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Washburn & Crosby's Gold Medal Flour, Lafayette Street.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Washburn & Crosby's Gold Medal Flour, Lafayette Street.
Published March 01. 2013 05:06PM

They're called ghost signs and all towns have them.

We pass them every day, but barely take notice.

They're fading reminders of lifestyles long ago, and they speak in silence, these sentinels printed on the sides of brick buildings.

They loom overhead, beckoning to us and sending the same messages they sent to those who came before.

You'll spot them up as high as the top stories of dominant buildings but also down low, as low as the bottom of river walls.

And you'll find them out in the country, too.

Some of the most popular - such as Mail Pouch Tobacco - talk to us from wooden barns on rural roads.

Despite the onslaught of nature, these hand-painted advertising signs have persevered.

Their artwork has survived the test of time, partly due to durable, lead-based paint and partly owing to the strength of brick canvas.

What do the signs say to us?

Their messages reveal that local women of the1880s and 90s went crazy over Washburn-Crosby Company's flour.

And why not? It was a big deal. Here's why.

When Cadwallader C. Washburn formed the Minneapolis Milling Company in 1856, he felt so confident about the quality of his flours that he entered his finest samples into competition. He sent his flours to the first International Millers' Exhibition in Cincinnati, Ohio. Washburn's flours were so good, he won all of the medals: gold, silver and bronze! His flour was declared the best in the world, and housewives in nearby Pennsylvania wanted it. He began selling it to them. Fittingly, he named it Gold Medal flour, and it's still #1 today. The company later became known as General Mills.

These are the stories of ghost signs. They tell us about ourselves, our food and the things we enjoy.

In Tamaqua, another sign tells us that men, women and children latched on to an exciting, fizzy drink concoction called Coca-Cola. It happened during the era of mechanical modernization.

In fact, the 1930s-40s Coca-Cola sign is painted over an earlier ad for Howard Williams Plumbing and Heating, which lured shoppers to purchase "Enameled ranges, Hoover vacuums, Electric washers and Sonora phonographs."

Early local signs also tell us that Conrad Bischoff was the local undertaker who also sold furniture and made cabinets.

Ghost signs span an era from the 1870s to 1960s. They were especially popular prior to the Great Depression.

Those who painted them were called "wall dogs."

The signs flourished for nearly a century. Still, the days of wall signs were numbered. Nothing lasts forever.

Municipal development eventually led to the introduction of codes, ordinances and laws created to put controls on outdoor advertising.

Suddenly, walls were no longer painted with signage.

By the 1970s, an era came to an end.

Still, "new" ghost signs occasionally pop to life all across the country when adjacent buildings are demolished, revealing murals long hidden from the public. And today, there is rising interest in these messages of yore.

History proponents are leading a drive to preserve and restore the brick panels of our past. In fact, ghost sign rehabilitation projects are now in vogue across the country, and renewed appreciation is growing for the messages of times past.

No matter where you live, start taking notice to ghost signs in your midst. Let them beckon to you. In turn, appreciate them for their art, design, color, words and messages.

The earliest signs take the rich, colorful culture of America's Industrial Revolution and they show it to you this very day.

On top of that, ghost signs are a tangible daily link to your parents, grandparents and beyond. And for that reason alone, they're worth savoring.

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