Signs of the Past
Century-old advertising still survives today
By Chuck Miller
While driving down a long highway or traveling through an unfamiliar city, you might look up at an old brick building or at the side of a barn and see what appears to be an advertisement. And you might start to wonder as you drive by, what kind of products Mail Pouch Tobacco and Uneeda Biscuit were and how long those ads have been around. Those painted promotions, along with ads for Coca-Cola, Pillsbury Flour and Bond Clothing for Men, and thousands of regional and local businesses, are still visible throughout the United States. These remnants of advertisements past, on the tallest buildings and the most faraway barns, are often called “ghost signs,” as the products some tout are no longer manufactured and, in many cases, the advertisements themselves are only visible after a rainy day.
Long before the days of digital billboards, the best way to make sure your product was seen by all travelers was to paint an advertisement on a tall building or on the façade of a house or on the side of a barn. Over the years, that same building might have been repainted with another advertisement, or completely painted over to hide the original ad. But a century of exposure to the elements often erased the cover-up ad, leaving the original peeking through.
One of the most famous sets of ghost signs came out of the National Biscuit Company’s Uneeda Biscuit advertising campaign. A hundred years ago, if you wanted to purchase a package of soda crackers, you went to the store and selected your crackers from a big barrel. Customers would fill up a bag with as many unbroken crackers as they could find. With this in mind, the National Biscuit Company advertised their line of Uneeda Biscuit soda crackers, wrapped in special protective pouches, with a million-dollar advertising campaign. Thousands of buildings across the country were painted with the words “Uneeda Biscuit – The Perfect Soda Cracker.” The campaign was so successful, the signs were repainted over and over again. Today those signs are still visible, even though Uneeda Biscuit ceased production in 2007.
While Uneeda Biscuit ads dominated urban buildings, Mail Pouch Tobacco ads appeared on hundreds of barns throughout the U.S. and Canada. These barns, with the words “CHEW Mail Pouch Tobacco — Treat Yourself to the Very Best,” were painted by a team of artists; a coat of black paint would first be applied to the barn, then the slogan, in white paint, would be added. Often the artist would add blue painted trim to the sides of the barn, and the barn owner would receive a couple of dollars and the promise of retouching when necessary. The campaign, which began in 1890, ended in 1969, when bans on tobacco advertising went into effect.
One of the most prolific Mail Pouch ad painters was Harley E. Warrick, who may have painted as many as 18,000 barns in his career. He worked very quickly, to the point where he was offered a steak dinner if he could complete a barn advertisement in a single day. He ate well off of that bet.
Painted brickface ads eventually were replaced by billboards, which could be updated or replaced as quickly as a construction crew could roll out a new banner.
Brickface ads had to be fully repainted by hand in order to stay presentable. Amazingly, these ghost signs often survive because the only way to completely remove the ads is to either paint over them, sandblast the paint off, or knock the building down, removing the ad once and for all.
Some ghost ads can actually disappear and re-appear, depending on the time of year. There are ghost ads on ivy-covered façades — the ad remains visible as long as the ivy has not yet bloomed. Other advertisements are only visible on cloudy, overcast days when one can best view the ghost sign without direct sunlight obscuring the ad. Some may have been sealed up by the construction of an adjacent building; many years later, when that building was torn down, the advertisements re-appeared for all to see.
Many of these ads are now being preserved and touched up. Some signs have actually achieved “historic” designation, and are treated as part of a city’s culture.