Signs of the Times

'Ghost signs' of the past
still visible today pay tribute to the past

Most exterior building signs were created
by 'walldogs' in the late 1800s - early 1900s

(February 2015) – Everything old was once new. Comprised of an estimated 133 blocks of historic district, Madison, Ind., is the perfect environment to revisit the past. In addition to the town’s significant landmarks and buildings are the remnants of numerous brick ads, or advertisements and business names, painted directly on the brick structures in olden times. Now referred to as “ghost signs,” these reminders of another time are sometimes in prominent areas and sometimes need to be sought out.


Photo courtesy of Gary Greenwood

A "ghost sign" of Battle Ax Tobacco Co. adorns the exterior wall of this building on West Main Street, Madison. The building today is home to Madison Table & Light.

One of the best-known ghost ads in Madison is the Hen and Ben’s sign that is displayed on the side of the Greiner’s building at the east edge of town at 928 Park Ave. and Hwy. 56. The shoe men, Henry and Benjamin Lotz, have been inviting people to come see them since 1890 when they first opened their business in what is now a Subway restaurant in downtown Madison. According to genealogical records at the Jefferson County Public Library, Henry died in 1931. Benjamin kept crafting and selling shoes until he retired in 1937.
It is unknown when the advertisement on the side of the Greiner’s building was painted or who painted it. However, it has kept the name prominent in the minds of locals, despite 78 years having passed since its closing.

Planing Mill

Photo courtesy of Gary Greenwood

This ghost sign on the wall of Lumber Mill Antique Mall displayed the W.H. Miller Planing Mill sign.

Other local signs that can still be seen include a grocery sign on the side of The Attic and Coffee Mill Café, 631 W. Main St. The preceding word is no longer legible. Fortunately, current owner Julie Truax knows the history of her building and is able to tell us that the full sign used to read “Vincent’s Grocery.”
The Old Market on Main building at 801 W. Main St. now boasts a lovely hand-painted sign that proclaims its current use. However, further inspection of this wall will reveal remnants of previous signs. The word “grocery” can once again be made out but does not show well in photographs. It is unknown if this is a reminder of the Star Food Store or its predecessor Shambach’s Grocery.
The rear of Shooter’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, 101 E. Main St., still displays a Roger’s Drug Store sign. The pharmacy was founded in the mid 1800s by W.H. Rogers.

Hen & Ben Shoe Men

Photo courtesy of Gary Greenwood

This ghost sign displays the Hen & Ben shoe store that once operated at 926 Park Ave. in Madison.

A walk around the Lumber Mill Antique Mall, 721 W. First St., will offer glimpses into the building’s past. The northwest corner boasts the name and purpose of the building as “W.H. Miller and Sons Planing Mill,” while also alerting interested parties to the location of their office and lumber yard, which were located at 823 W. Main St. A short stroll to the east side of the building will reveal yet another planing mill sign, while the southwest corner of the building has the faded and mysterious word “stove” painted upon its surface. Owner Dean Miller says that this is a reminder of the buildings lesser known function as the Madison Stove Foundry, which manufactured iron cooking and heating stoves.
Business owners also had the option of allowing a portion of the exterior wall space to serve as an advertisement for a national brand or company. This is the case with the Champion Spark Plug sign on the side of what is now Rembrandt’s Gallery & Wine Bar at 323 E. Main St.

Pillsbury sign

Photo by Jenny Straub Youngblood

This ghost sign of the Pillsbury company still exists on the wall at 302 Jefferson St. in Madison.

The Pillsbury Best Flour sign on the side of what used to be Steinhardt’s Grocery at 302 Jefferson St. is another example of a national brand being advertised on local walls. Sometimes these ads resulted in a fee being paid to the owners of the buildings, but more frequently resulting in granting the building owner what was called a “privilege” for the use of their wall space. This privilege would allow for a smaller advertisement of the proprietor’s own business at no charge.
Madison is also home to another ghost ad that is the result of a very competitive ad campaign led by the Battle Ax Tobacco Co. In the 1890s, there were a lot of options for a lover of chewing tobacco. According to The Report of the Commissioner of Corps. on the Tobacco Industry in 1890, Battle Ax had been identified by the American Tobacco Co. as its biggest rival. What resulted was a price-cutting struggle that was soon followed by an aggressive move on the part of Battle Ax.
The country was soon flooded with Battle Ax representatives offering free samples to distributors. These representatives were followed by groups of “walldogs,” or sign painters, who would emblazon participating business with the Battle Ax logo, which would frequently include a striking image of a horizontal battle ax. An example of one of these ads can be seen on the south side of 628 West St.
Walldogs were generally employed by large sign companies that would pay these individuals a wage to travel the country executing designs commissioned by manufacturers. It is believed the term “walldog” stems from the fact that they would “work like a dog” in unpleasant weather conditions, many times a significant distance from the ground.
According to Tod Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, the painters would use homemade swing stages made from wooden planks. Many times, a pulley system was devised that would allow the painters to raise and lower themselves as needed. Various methods were used in the execution of these ads and signs.
However, Swormstedt says that a worker would generally have the design preplanned on paper that had been gridded out. The artwork would then be transferred to the wall using a larger grid by making precise measurements and snapping straight chalk lines. This would ensure that any graphic would remain in proportion, since it is virtually impossible to maintain correct shape when working on a large wall.
Another method would employ a sketch on paper in the size of the actual ad. The lines would then be scored on the paper by using a pounce wheel similar to what is used by seamstresses. The sketch would then be attached securely to the wall. The walldog would then use a “pounce bag,” or a bag filled with chalk or graphite. This bag would be rubbed firmly over the scored lines, creating a sketch of the advertisement on the wall. This method would most likely be used for ads or signs with a lot of detail.
It is Swormstedt’s desire to provide a home for the stories told by historical signs. The museum consists of 19,000 square feet of exhibit space and has plenty of room to expand. In addition to being able to take a trip through history via the displays, visitors to the museum can stop at the working neon shop as new pieces of history are created.
The museum offers guided tours that will provide additional information as well as being quite entertaining. Visitors often say they will never look at signs the same. The museum is located at 1330 Monmouth Ave. and online at www.americansignmuseum.org.
Today, there is growing interest in these signs from the past. They remind us of a time when things were simpler. It was a time when an ad would be most likely to reach people as they walked along the streets of their town and going about their daily business. The fact that they remain is undeniable evidence that things were once built to last rather than flash across a screen in a repetitive effort to convey a subliminal message. Things were once made by hand by groups of young people who wanted to see their country and experience all it had to offer. They may not have been paid a vast financial sum, but their wealth of life experience was priceless.

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