Sam Roberts and Ghost Signs

Ghost Signs

Sam Roberts has a true passion for ghost signs. Speaking at the Letter Exchange, Roberts discusses his history with ghost signs and what he has learned about them through his research and documentation. The first part of the talk primarily focused to the meaning of a ghost sign and their definition

The definition for ghost signs is slightly unclear, the typical definition refers to them as ‘an old hand-painted advertising sign’. However, this explanation only refers to signs that were hand painted and used for commercial purposes. This does not include other types of signs, for example; those that were used for way finding, technical, instructional or political purposes. Frank Jump, who also documents ghost signs but primarily in New York City, refers to ghost signs instead as faded ads, although again this focuses on commercial signs in particular.

Due to this lack of definition it becomes difficult to see what might qualify as a ghost sign. Roberts describes how usually there is an element of redundcy in play, a sign can be described as either inactive or active. An inactive sign would include those that no longer fit their intended aim or purpose, such as those that advertise a certain brand or business which no longer exist. Although, the line between active and inactive signs becomes blurry when considering ghost signs for brands such as Hovis, which still exists as a active and popular brand today. It becomes even harder to identify a ghost sign when you consider the way in which it was created, do moulded signs count as ghost signs? What about those made from ceramics – could you even go so far as to say that neon signs could be defined as ghost signs?

Ghost Signs

Neon signs at the American Sign Museum

One of Roberts main efforts is to try make people more aware and appreciative of ghost signs to protect them in the future; he hopes to do so by documenting, researching, providing lectures and tours. Unfortunately many ghost signs are destroyed all the time. The gradual deterioration by the sun obviously plays a part in this, which of course takes a long time compared to more sudden changes. Graffiti and vandalism are also common culprits, although the spray paint typically used often disappears quicker than the lead based paint used on ghost signs. The location of ghost signs have made them prime places to install billboards, although this means that we cannot enjoy the ghost sign, at least it is protected in the meantime. But by far the biggest culprit for damaging and destroying ghost signs, are the property owners and developers. Unless the building itself is listed, the owners and developers have no obligation to keep the sign and often the sign is there one day and gone the next.

Ghost Signs

This entire building was moved to save this ghost sign from being demolished to allow for a highway widening project.

There have been some efforts to try and preserve ghost signs, one method is to move the sign entirely, although this is unrealistic as most signs are painted directly on the bricks. Another method is to protect the sign by covering it in plastic to help fight against vandalism. But the most controversial approach of all is to repaint the sign altogether, which can greatly change many of the visual elements and ruin much of the charm the sign originally had. In fact in Cambridge (where I live) a few ghost signs have been repainted and the council had plans to restore many more signs across the city but they seem to have given up on this endeavour since; probably for the best.

Ghost Signs

Repainted ghost sign in Cambridge

It can be argued that repainting of these signs only makes sense as they would have be repainted back then many times anyway. In my opinion, if we are going to repaint these signs it needs to be done it such a manner than preserves the original letterforms accurately and ideally undertaken by professionals who have access to past source material where available. Or better yet just to bring back the elements that have almost disappeared, so it maintains its ghostly image without losing any features of the original design.

Roberts commented on how trendy ghost signs have become after many requests for fake ghost signs. Some businesses want to give the appearance that they have been in their new premises for over 80 years, Roberts comments that it would be better for the business to have actually been there for 80 years and let your sign fade into a ghost sign naturally. The process of faking a ghost sign is more complex than simply leaving the sun to do its thing, Roberts claims that it is important to build up to the amount of ghosting you want rather than painting the whole sign fully and reducing the amount of paint afterwards.

Ghost Signs

Roberts was asked to create some faux ghost signs for the Coca Cola headquarters in London.

If you are interested in ghost signs, you can find a searchable archive of UK and Ireland ghost signs on the History of Advertising Trust’s website. There are also separate collections for different locations across the globe, I have listed some of these below:

New York City

L’viv, Ukraine

Louisville, Kentucky

Britain, France and Germany

Canada and the US


And of course you can find examples from all around the world on Sam Robert’s blog.

In a similar vein, if you are interested in ghost signs you would probably enjoy this short documentary called ‘horn please’. It centres around the life and work of India’s truck painters, I was particularly taken with their typographic skill and talent.

Image sources:

Black Cat Cigarettes

American Sign Museum

Carrollton Sign

Stoakley Sign Cambridge

Coke headquarters