Calgary history revealed through ‘ghost signs’

While this Yogi Bear sign pointing people towards the zoo is technically not a ghost sign, its neighbor advertising "The Boys" clothing store is. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD/LIVEWIRE CALGARY

The term ‘ghost sign’ conjures images of ethereal lights and thoughts of spooky nighttime encounters.

In reality, ghost signs are a lot more down-to-earth than the name suggests.

Ghost signs are old, billboard-style advertisements that were painted on the sides of buildings. At the time they were painted, they would have been hard to miss.

The advertisements would often cover the entire side of a building. Many were in black and white, but some had more garish colours that stood out from the crowd.

Now, as the name suggests, they are ghostly remnants of a time long past. If the advertisements had been painted on wood, it would have rotted away by now. The brick buildings that commonly had such displays are also starting to disappear.

If the signs or buildings themselves aren’t gone, then they are covered by new construction projects. Or new buildings crammed together might block the view of a specific wall that was home to the display.

Meaning of ‘ghost signs

Richard White, freelance writer, blogger, and self-described urban flaneur, said that the terminology for the urban décor isn’t surprising.  (Editor’s note: Richard White has contributed content to LiveWire Calgary in our Opinion section.)

“I believe ‘ghost sign’ comes from the fact that they are very faded, and you can hardly see them. They are almost invisible in some cases. They were less intense colours, often using pastels that faded in the light of the sun,” White said.

“I think these signs have a lot to do with nostalgia. Feeling good with this link to the past. Some of the graphics add to the visual diversity of the city. I think that’s the problem. If you paint over them to brighten them up, they are no longer ghost signs. It’s part of the natural evolution of the city, they will eventually fade away.”

While the visage of these signs is fading, new ones are revealed all the time. This is often done through construction where the siding or false front of a building is removed, revealing the ghost sign underneath.

Calgary’s most recent discovery was along Edmonton Trail after a newer sign was removed to reveal the ghost sign underneath. It seems to be an advertisement for an autobody glass shop.

A newly discovered ghost sign along Edmonton Trail. ETHAN WARD/LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Yogi Bear: Ghost sign or not

Even better-known signs like the Yogi bear sign along 9 Avenue in Inglewood may slip past one’s notice.

The distinct sign rests on the side of the historic Blow block. From the 1960s onwards, Yogi bear eagerly pointed left, urging people on towards the Calgary Zoo and St. George’s Island.

Although, as Alan Zakrison, a historical enthusiast and self-proclaimed “twitterstorian” said, Yogi Bear might not technically be a ghost sign.

“I don’t think the Yogi Bear even is a ghost sign. Because the zoo is still there. And Yogi Bear is still showing you where it is. Ghost signs represent businesses and landmarks that are long gone. That’s why they are ghosts,” Zakrison said.

Ghost signs of Calgary

Alongside the bear, there is a ghost sign reading “The Boys.” Almost entirely faded, this sign, according to the City of Calgary’s inventory of historic resources, states that “The Boys” was a popular men’s clothing store also known as Thompson and Flumerfelt’s men furnishings. These men operated the store in the Blow block from 1910 to 1914.

Also in Inglewood is the Sibley block, which was built in 1911. Just a few blocks down the street from “The Boys,” the distinctive ghost sign advertising bicycles can be spotted. This is associated with Fred Deeley Cycles Ltd, the building’s longest-term occupant, operating from 1948 to 1970. They dealt in the business of bicycles and motorcycles.

A ghost sign advertising bicycles for Fred Deeley Cycles Ltd. ETHAN WARD/LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Moving to the East Village, the Simmons factory warehouse comes into view. Constructed in 1912 for Montreal-based Alaska Bedding Company, the building is best known for its usage by Simmons, as evidenced by the Ghost signs that proudly trumpets the brand name.

Everything from hospital beds to the Beauty Rest line of mattresses was assembled and stored here. During the Second World War, Simmons used the building to exclusively produce bedding for the military.

The Simmons factory and warehouse sports several distinct ghost signs. PHOTO: ETHAN WARD/LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Disappearance of ghost signs

While these landmarks have stood the test of time for so long, they are starting to disappear. Josh Traptow, executive director of Heritage Calgary, said that while the potential to lose these signs is high, it is difficult to preserve them in any way.

“It is very challenging to keep a ghost sign preserved the way it is. Especially if the building is being demolished. You’d have to take down the entire brick wall or the façade if you wanted to save the sign. That would be at the goodwill of the owner of the building,” Traptow said.  

Ghost signs are not required to be saved even on designated historical buildings. Although, they can be listed as a character-defining element.

With their gradual fading in the sun and the onus of protecting them placed on building owners, ghost signs do not have much protection.

Preservation

There are some ways to preserve them. As with many old items like vehicles or toys, ghost signs can be restored with a fresh coat of paint. A creative way of preservation can be seen downtown. The John Fluevog shoe store on Stephen Avenue was built right up against the Hull/Hodder block, which had a ghost sign on its side. That ghost sign, seemingly advertising gum, can be partially seen on the inside of the store.

If all else fails, Zakrison said that documentation is the best form of preservation.

“These signs help tell the story of the building. Sometimes the building itself can’t be saved. When that happens, it should be documented fully. With the inclusion of the ghost signs. That is part of the story the building has to tell,” Zakrison said.

While ghost signs seem to be lost to time, some think that this is the way it’s meant to be.

“Ghost signs are nice to have but not essential. Unless a ghost sign has some real historical significance. If it was somehow painted by someone famous, for example. Otherwise, I don’t think they necessarily need protection. They are meant to disappear; they have a life span. You just need to let them fade away with dignity,” White said.

But that doesn’t mean they have to disappear from public consciousness. Zakrison’s Facebook page, Old Calgary Sidewalk Stamps, has detailed ghost sign photo albums that recount the history of some of these signs and the buildings they rest on.  

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