Graphic designer Lawrence O’Toole builds an urban portrait out of echoes of the city that once was.
A city’s faded painted advertisements—the ghosts of a lost urban landscape—are history in plain sight. They are tangible ways to tell the histories of changing neighborhoods, industries and ways of life. The goal of my new book, Fading Ads of Philadelphia, was to capture just a few of the examples of the fading signage and advertisements in this city and to include them as part of an archive intended to document and share these images. But beyond simply documenting the images, I hoped to attach whatever interesting and relevant historical information and personal stories I could find to help place these interesting artifacts in context, so that the memory of these signs can be preserved before they are lost altogether.
There aren’t many advertising practices that have been in use longer than that of the sign, whose history is nearly as old as the history of civilized man, spanning some 5,000 years. We find imagery and words on establishments in the ruins of Roman and Greek structures. We find the inscriptions of builders and pharaohs on buildings from Egyptian antiquity. It is fitting, then, to discover that display advertising in Philadelphia is at least as old as, if not older than, our very nation itself. Even before printing became common practice throughout the colonies, hand-lettered signs and carved symbols were used by businesses to advertise their wares.
Turn-of-the-century photographs of Philadelphia storefronts on Market Street and Broad Street show buildings literally blanketed in signage and lettering advertising wares and services. Every window, every column and every flat expanse of brick was put to use—even the roofs held dimensional metal signage. It is hard to imagine these days all those images and slogans vying for the attention of the pedestrian walking down the street. It must have been something bewildering and wonderful to witness, much like seeing modern Times Square in person for the first time.
Today, many faded ads are visible around the city, dating from the late 1800s through the 1960s: weathered, painted signs heralding an obsolete product, an outdated trademark or a clue as to a building’s history. In many cases with older signs, white is the only color remaining, as the white lead paint deteriorated slower than the other colored paints used in the sign-making process.
They have been called “ghost signs,” a term that’s doubly appropriate. Some faded ads can reappear on walls when the light is just right, after a rainstorm or when the viewer had observed the sign long enough to decipher what at first seems to be unintelligible remnants of paintbrush strokes. And there’s also the phenomenon of rediscovering painted advertisements that were obscured or completely covered by an adjacent building and forgotten. A restoration or demolition suddenly reveals them again, in vivid color or detail, if only for a short while—the aesthetic equivalent of seeing a ghost.
While the mechanization and computerization of the sign trade has been both a blessing and curse, hand lettering and sign painting is not a dead art. There has been a resurgence of interest in lettering, and a renewed interest in more humanistic approaches to letterforms in art and design over the past few years, and as such there has been renewed interest in signs and their history. As both a designer and sign collector, I sincerely hope the trend continues.
309 Arch Street
High up on the side of this cast-iron façade building near the corner of Third and Arch streets, you can find a faintly visible ad for “Klosfit Petticoat.” The ad is badly deteriorated, but we can still make out the phrase “Fits without any wrinkles” painted below. There are also the faint remnants of an illustration at left, presumably of one of the undergarments that made Klosfit a household name in the early 1900s.
The building was constructed in 1875 as the Klosfit Petticoat factory. Patented in 1907, the Klosfit petticoat is a skirt-like undergarment that differed from others of the time in that it did away with the customary and annoying drawstrings that puckered and gathered and instead made use of elastics for a more composed dressing appearance. In city archive images, we see that this ad space was used to advertise for other clothing companies in later years, so it would seem the building has long housed businesses associated with garment manufacture. In the 1980s, the building was renovated into condos and renamed “The Hoopskirt Factory” to reflect its original purpose.
13th and Nectarine streets
John Evans, a blacksmith by trade, originally produced flat suspension springs for horse-drawn buggies and carriages, as well as the machinery and apparatus to produce these products. His business began in New Haven, Conn., in 1850. Yielding to the continued insistence by Philadelphia Spring Works, one of his largest customers, Evans moved his operation from New Haven to Philadelphia. The business arrived at this building, located at the corner of 13th and Nectarine streets, and it would reside here from 1870 until 1967. Still in business today, the company is operating just outside the city in the suburb of Lansdale. It is America’s oldest spring-making company.
The building is covered in nicely lettered signage, which is still quite visible, probably due to its upkeep until the late ’60s. There have been a few small adjustments to the lists of products painted between the windows since the company took up residence, but that aside, the signage appears to be largely unaltered from that of the late 1800s. “Springs, Coil, Flat, Wire Forms, Metal Stampings” fill the left panel, and the right panel reads, “Springs Tested—Heat Treated.” Under the right sign, we can make out the words “Mfrs” and “Generic.” On either side of the product-listing panels are interesting logos made up of painted illustrations of springs. The structure and signage are still holding up pretty well, despite the building being vacant for a number of years.
11th and Chestnut streets
Reedmor Books, most recently the Reedmor Magazine Company, was a Center City purveyor of discounted books and magazines. It was located a block away and around the corner from this interesting sign on Walnut Street, which made clever use of two unsightly bricked-over garage bays to advertise closer to the busy pedestrian shopping traffic on Chestnut Street. The goal was to hopefully steer a few customers off Chestnut and down to its storefront.
This sign covers the mismatched brick pattern of the garages with nicely composed lettering and illustrated sign painting. It also incorporates a prominent directional arrow, pointing you toward the store location and helping to further hide the irregularities in the wall surfaces. The store was the self-proclaimed largest and oldest of its kind in the city and, according to the sign itself, was “specializing in science fiction, back date magazines and paperbacks.”
The building on which this sign is painted had been left mostly vacant until 2010, when local coffee chain Milkboy took over the space. It has been renovated into a café and bar on the ground level and a live music venue on the second floor. As part of the renovation, contractors reopened both of the garage bays, which did remove a small portion of the sign, but thankfully, the owners realized the inherent beauty of the lettering and have left the rest of it intact.