Ghost signs cover the city of Tacoma. Best viewed at the top of historical buildings throughout the city, they are sometimes difficult to see but remain present for those who take the time to appreciate history. No, I’m not suggesting the city has signs of paranormal spirits lingering through the streets. That would be an entirely different article.
Ghost signs or fading ads are the disappearing painted letters and illustrations on the side of old buildings. These signs are a glimpse into another time and some date back to the late 1800s. How do these one hundred-year-old signs stand the test of time? The secret is in the lead-based paint, which kept out water and sunlight. Now considered unsafe for the environment, lead-based paint is no longer used.
The artists of the original paintings were called “wall dogs” and might be compared to graffiti artists of today. After all, they weren't hired to create a museum worthy masterpiece or sculpt a statue of the mayor. Commissioned to paint highly visible advertisements, these highly skilled artists were fast and talented. They often traveled from town to town-painting signs.At the time, they weren't considered art at all, but now it's easy to see the beauty in the fading ads which adore historical buildings.
Over time, lead paint begins to fade and peel, leaving a ghostly appearance of the fading ad. A city, which strives to preserve the historical values, strives to save their ghost signs. However, it can be a daunting task and there is much debate of the proper technique for preservation. In the past, these signs were preserved by painting over the existing sign. Now, conservators today are being asked to preserve the original sign, rather than paint over it. There is even a technique of touching up the original colors to preserve the original design.
Where can one find Tacoma’s ghost signs? Below is a list of a few of the advertisers whose ghost signs can still be seen in Tacoma. There are many more, which aren't on this list. If you are looking for an art-filled adventure, take an adventure to the city and look closely at the tops of the buildings.
Harmon Mfg. Co
West Coast Grocery
Washington Machinery Depot
F.S. Harmon & Co. Mattresses
Poole’s Feed Store
Wholesale Dry Goods Furnishing Notions
Hunt & Mottet Co.
Alber Brothers Mill
New York – Washington Outfitters