- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

WASHINGTON, Pa. (AP) - Walking or driving around Washington or the Mon Valley, there are pieces of - if not art, then craft - from a time long gone, fading away, day by day.

These advertisements from yesteryear are easily overlooked, but someone cared about them enough to coin the term “ghost signs” because, in many cases, they continue to promote has-been businesses or products no longer made.

They can be seen on the sides of older buildings in many downtown areas, fading reminders of once-bustling shopping districts.

Lawrence O’Toole of New York City, an authority on the subject, began researching these graphics from days past when he was a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“I saw signs that were kind of peeking out from side alley walls,” he said in a phone interview late last year. “Signage I thought was interesting was on old buildings, and it gave a sense of the blocks downtown I was focusing on. I shot it on film. It’s so easy now to grab them on a cellphone. In the late 1990s, blogging had just started, and I thought, ‘I’m going to try this blogging thing and post a couple of these photos.’ That’s kind of where it stopped for a while.”

Preservation through photography

Photographing the signs became a way of preserving them, so O’Toole started taking pictures of buildings bearing handpainted signs, such as a sauerkraut factory, that were being demolished or about to be torn down.

“Sometimes, they’re a little bit more cryptic,” he said. “I started going to city archives.” O’Toole found he could request historic photos based on an intersection and “lo and behold, some of these signs would line up.”

“Many years later, about 2004, I had just been keeping up the blog here and there and someone contacted me to make a book about it.”

O’Toole found out more about the signs and who owned the buildings on which they appeared. He was able to compose what he called “mini-histories about the signs, where they were painted and what happened to them.”

His book, “Fading Ads of Philadelphia,” was published in 2012, and he was able to offer some insight into what people may pass daily but never really notice.

O’Toole said white paint on brick tends to last because “what sign painters used was lead-based, and the highest concentration of lead was in white paint.”

Now the co-owner of a small design firm in Manhattan, O’Toole was able to put into perspective the advertising media available to turn-of-the-20th-century merchants and manufacturers, which was basically print, either newspaper or magazine.

“Manufacturers would pay for the signs that they would put on a storefront and give you signage with your store name with an area for an advertisement below it at no cost to you,” O’Toole said.

Sign painters exist today, although they are less common. “This was a very skilled trade,” he explained.

“Many, many schools taught this. It was a trade along the lines of plumbing or electrician. There was rigorous schoolwork, then you became an apprentice for a number of years. It was a learned craft and an instructed craft. Perhaps it was not formal art training, but a person would make lettered forms and learn how to measure it out and do it on-site and upscale a small concept drawing beginning with a rough sketch in chalk. Up close, it doesn’t appear to be neat and tidy, and it might not feel quite right.”

What makes a good ghost sign? For O’Toole, it’s “an advertisement for things that no longer exist, processes and things we don’t think about anymore.” He cited feathers and horsehair, byproducts of animal processing that were bound into brooms and brushes and stuffed into bedding materials.

“We don’t ever see that kind of stuff anymore, so there’s nostalgia associated with an ad for something I’ve never even heard of,” he explained.

Others may prefer ones that simply name a business or product that still exists, like Procter & Gamble’s Ivory soap or Coca-Cola, which is generally painted with “a little more color,” O’Toole said, like its signature red.

In Donora, a fading sign on the side of a brick building promotes Stoney’s beer, which is still being made, and in Washington, a barely visible ad for Ivory soap graces a downtown building.

Dozens in Mon Valley

Terry Necciai, an preservation architect and architectural historian from Monongahela, said there are dozens of ghost signs throughout Mon Valley communities. A number of them are in Charleroi, Necciai said, because it “sprung up in a very short time, but it still took 10 to 20 years.”

During that time, there were gaps in the buildings that line the main streets, providing the side walls needed for the signs at a time when the form of advertising was popular.

Necciai said more signs were likely hidden when a new building went up next to an existing one because they shared side walls, or “party walls.”

“There is one in Monongahela I get excited about,” Neccai said. It is on the Lynn Alley side of the Monongahela Area Historical Society building.

While letters can be made out, Necciai said the sign can no longer be read, “but 30 years ago I could read it.” The sign said, in Italian, “Victor Abatti - sea fare tickets to Italy.”

Necciai was able to meet descendants of Abatti in 2014 when they came to Monongahela for a Sister Cities celebration.

“I’ve always wanted to find someone to restore that sign,” he said, and added that some slow progress is being made.

He also said that a sign on the side of a building at Fallowfield Avenue and Fifth Street in Charleroi was repainted with the name Calistri. It once housed a dairy bar operated by that family.

Ghost signs in Washington

Here’s some background on some signs in the vicinity of South Main Street in Washington.

Greg McCoy, senior archivist for Procter & Gamble, wrote in an email that the East Wheeling Street Ivory soap sign at Shaffer Avenue is typical of the type that were painted in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “especially if the building occupied a prominent location in a town’s center or was on a major road or waterway. This one is difficult to date as it’s faded so much, but I’d ballpark it at 1900. You can still see remnants of these in downtown Cincinnati,” the headquarters of the corporation.

He continued, “I’m willing to guess that this building was at one time occupied by a store which sold Ivory. I can even see the word “IT” between the windows, which would’ve been Ivory’s main slogan, “IT FLOATS!”

On East Strawberry Avenue, a person can barely make out the name “McVehil,” although on the Shaffer Avenue side, a sign painted in the 1950s is very visible as the “Home of McVehil Plumbing, Heating and Supply Co. Inc.” Below it is a newer advertisement for another East Wheeling Street business, Countryside Frame Shop and Gallery. Countryside Frame has also left a ghost sign on the Shaffer Avenue side of its former building across East Wheeling Street.

Tripp Kline is restoring a building at South Main Street and West Strawberry Avenue that once housed the newsroom, composition room, steam press and job-printing shop of the venerable Washington Reporter, which joined the Washington Observer in 1923 at 122 S. Main St., where the newspaper operation remains to this day.

Another business that operated in the former Reporter building was Ferrell Brothers Hardware, a sign for which is visible to those headed north on Main Street.

The store is listed in “Paint & Oil Report, 1917-1918 Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Harrisburg, Pa.,” and a February 1921 volume of Hardware News includes Ferrell Bros. Hardware Co. under “Hardware Retailers Who Sell Auto Accessories.”

A 1929 Washington City Directory lists Charles H. and Delmer E. as the Ferrell brothers’ first names. They were the sons of George Washington Ferrell, who was born in 1858 and who died in 1927, according to rootswebofancestry.com. Johanna Ferrell was also associated with the business, and Paul Ferrell was listed as its manager in a 1954 City Directory, but the 1956-57 edition notes the address as “vacant.”

Kline said of the Ferrell Brothers sign, “I have no plan of inking over it at this time.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1M0cm6r

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, https://www.observer-reporter.com

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