I’m a sucker for a handmade sign.
Makes no difference if it’s a small one that says 'BEWARE OF DOG', 'CASH ONLY' or 'GARAGE SALE'. Or a large brick wall advertisement that reads 'MAGIC MIRROR' or 'PITTCRAFT PRINTING.'
To be sure I’m not much for the current trendy digital outdoor information or advertisement signs in front of schools, banks, offices, restaurants, etc. (Also, I’ve never taken a selfie, posted on Facebook, tweeted, instagrammed or snapchatted.)
I did a little research and discovered that outdoor advertising is truly an ancient tradition. The huge stone obelisks of Egypt, incised with hieroglyphs, told passersby of the greatness of the Pharaoh, recorded laws and treaties, and marked the farthest corners of the empire.
The Phoenicians, the world’s greatest seafarers and traders, were enticed to market stalls by merchants in their port towns by painted rocks and cliff sides along well-traveled trade routes.
Before a devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. covered and ultimately preserved Pompeii under a thick layer of volcanic ash, most shops had inscriptions painted or carved near their entrances advertising what merchandise was available inside.
Early modern signs on buildings in Europe were often “fascia signs,” which were painted in a band on the fascia, or face, between the first and second stories of a storefront. Indeed, this area of the façade eventually became known as the “signboard” or “signband.”
The advent of taller buildings provided increased areas for painted advertisements. Sign painters began to install their work on the upper stories, not just between the first and second.
Whole sides of buildings became massive handbills, meant to be read from top to bottom. Often, these painted buildings were like an inventory, listing, for instance, all of the departments in a department store.
The sign painters who specialized in painting these buildings were called “wall dogs.”
I’m especially intrigued with these now fading apparitions from the past on old brick buildings in Pittsburg. Known as “ghost signs”, many of these revenants — painted between 1890 and 1960 — are still visible.
What got me started on my ghost sign quest in the first place was when friend and fellow poet, Al Ortolani, suggested the title of an upcoming book of poems — that will feature work by the two of us, Melissa Fite and Adam Jameson — be titled “Ghost Sign.”
It made immediate sense. A poet has to look deeper into things, many times communing with ghosts from the past.
If you stand on the corner of 3rd and Broadway and look south you’ll see a brick wall advertisement for A.J. CRIPE Town Talk Bread that looks 3-D. That’s because it’s actually two Town Talk signs from different periods painted over one another in slightly different fonts, with one more diminished than the other.
Gazing at the sign, it’s almost like I can reach in and touch my youth — eating Town Talk toast and jelly for breakfast, listening to A.J. Cripe sing “The Little Red Fox” on Melody Matinee; smelling baking bread on a summer night as I passed Cripe’s bakery on 1st street.
Look west from 4th and Broadway and you’ll see another even larger Town Talk Bread sign below a large lettered sign that runs the length of it proclaiming SELL & SONS HARDWARE. Old timers will remember it as an old-fashioned hardware store that carried a little bit of everything, including “Hardware, Paints, Appliances and Supplies” — according to the 1961 Purple & White PHS Yearbook.
Stand on the west side of Broadway and 5th Street and look up to your left and you’ll see, at the top of a four-story building, a very well preserved black and white on red brick Coulter-McGuire MENSWEAR sign.
Some of you may remember a story, which I printed here some years back, that was old to me by the now departed Pittsburg treasure, Fred Schiefelbein, who worked for this newspaper when it was Pittsburg Headlight and Sun:
“The typesetter who created an ad for Coulter McGuire, selected a large type that they have in reserve for the second coming of Christ. The ad featured a sale of ‘Essley Shirts.’ He and the proofreader both overlooked that the letter ‘R’ had been omitted in the word shirts. Needless to say, the omission was the conversation piece of hundreds of readers. I don’t know how many shirts were sold, but the clothing store owners gave the ‘red-faced’ printer a new shirt.”
Janette Mauk from PSU Special Collections and my cousin Katharine have been helping me on my search, providing photos of old signs from years past.
They’ve found ones for ‘LONG-BELL LUMBER’, ‘PEPSI COLA’, ‘SANDELLA’S LAUNDRY’, GLICK WHOLESALE GROCERS’, ‘IGA MART,’ and ‘GRIMALDI’S DOG FOOD, DA-GO FOR IT!’ to name a few.
The one I still looking for — the sign I remember most clearly from my childhood — is the massive one painted on a grain elevator on east 4th Street alongside a enormous chicken: ‘IF KELSO’S EGG MASH WON’T MAKE ‘EM LAY — THEY’RE ROOSTERS.’
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and prevention and wellness coordinator at Pittsburg State University. He also operates Knoll Consulting & Training Services in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499.