Ghost Signs

Must Everything Fade?

May 11, 2021 by

There is a deep thought expressed in a late eighties song that goes “Ashes to ashes, dust into dust, buildings will crumble, bridges will rust . . . and so it goes with everything but love.”

A few years after that song hit the charts, I started learning the basics of hand-carved signage from master artisans in Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts. It was an inspiring chapter of my life, and helped to get my family into the sign-making trade, first in Minnesota and then later in Australia. Over the last twenty-seven years we have enjoyed being involved in the design and production of many thousands of signs.

old shedDilapidated barn with ghost sign. Meigs County, Ohio, USA.

Unfortunately, over the decades I noticed that no matter how carefully constructed a work of craftsmanship may be, enough years outside in the weather will hurt it. Dust-laden winds sandblast the gold from gilded letters, harsh UV rays from the sun fade the best of paints, and rain gets into the small cracks behind the trim, causing damage whenever it freezes. Even the most beautiful award-winning works will deteriorate to the point where they need replacement. I guess this is one reason why sign-makers and other people who know how to build things always have work to do.

Personally, I enjoy doing refurbishments to give nice signage a second chance. But cleaning and repairing weathered signs up close only reinforces for me how perishable anything is when created by our human efforts.

“Back in the day,” itinerant lettering artists each had a unique style and often signed their work. Painting walls of buildings and barns, they influenced the look of the areas where they travelled. History remembers one man who painted or retouched over twenty thousand Mail Pouch Tobacco signs in thirteen states.

When signs like this become so old and weathered that they are hard to read, enthusiasts call them “ghost signs.” These faded images have value as nostalgia icons (those Mail Pouch signs are National Historic Landmarks now) and can still tell a story long after they stop advertising a product.

My son Donal learned sign-making skills as a schoolboy and has been at it ever since. Recently he wrote a folk song using the musings of an itinerant “lettering man” to mark the difference between all of our perishable efforts and the works of the original Sign Maker who provides our daily bread, and whose message never fades.



About the author

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan lives with his wife Nancy at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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