I admit it. I love a good ghost sign. I’m not quite a trainspotter yet, and I haven’t yet become a Shipping Forecast aficionado, nor a fan of Great British Railway Journeys. Still though, you can count ghostsign hunting as my first slow hobby. (I should note that I’m well aware that it’s a slippery slope from here to watching a 134-hour Norwegian ferry route on live TV, but I’m willing to take that risk.)
Let’s get back though to the thin edge of the wedge, shall we? Ghostsigns are old hand-painted advertisements that used to grace buildings just about everywhere. They are small voices from the past inexplicably preserved to speak to us now. Not knowing why a particular sign has remained is part of the attraction. Did the building owner want to preserve a piece of the building’s history? Was it just a “meh” attitude that left the sign intact?
There’s even a free, searchable UK archive of these signs at The History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive. There’s an international Ghostsigns Flickr group too–careful about following that link. I got lost in there for nearly an hour. So many ghost signs! So little time!
The most famous ghost sign is probably in York, gloriously preserved to remind us all of the power of Bile Beans. (You can get a great view of it walking the York city wall, FYI.)
Here’s one right around the corner from where I live:
And here’s another a couple of blocks from my daughter’s school:
What interests me here are the revealed layers. London (like most big cities) is simply buried in its history, and the layers are there for peeling away if you just know how to look (and are willing to slow down to do so.) A ghostsign is like the history that sometimes gets uncovered after a storm inviting us to look at two things at once: what is and what was/what might have been and what might be in the future. Putting those layers together makes for the best kind of critical thinking about place, because the magic of a city is that it’s so many things–past and present–all happening at the same time, whether the ghostsign is visible or not.