Graphic designer Lawrence O’Toole builds an urban portrait out of echoes of the city that once was.
Spring Garden and 10th streets
The Union Transfer Company was an express baggage transportation firm that first incorporated in 1867 in Philadelphia. Records show the company was in business continuously through at least 1918, and most likely survived longer than that. Union Transfer had local branch offices in Atlantic City, Cape May and Camden, N.J., and eventually spread to cities farther south such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The 1100 Chestnut St. Branch Office address first appears in Philadelphia city directory listings in the mid-1880s. There are numerous styles of archive trade cards that depict illustrations of a horse-drawn express wagon, typical of the early pre-motorized fleet the company employed. The wooden-slatted sides of the carriages had the lettering “Union Transfer Company, Baggage Express” painted on them.
In 1886, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company initiated a new “special delivery system” for baggage, which employed the New York Transfer Company in New York and the Union Transfer Company in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington as part of the system. Passengers could ship baggage in advance from any address in one city to any address in any one of the other member cities, freeing up those passengers from the problems of dealing with handling heavy and numerous baggage items when traveling.
This half-block-long warehouse building, located on Spring Garden between 10th and 11th streets, is a beautiful architectural mix of brick and red stone details. The building was utilitarian in nature, serving as a warehouse and staging area for baggage and freight. There is very little signage present on the building—only some lettering at either end of the long warehouse that reads, “Union Transfer Co., Baggage Express, Phil’a Local Express.”
The space itself has served many purposes since the baggage handling days: freight warehouse, market, daycare center, automotive repair shop and Spaghetti Warehouse chain restaurant. The sign has recently been retouched, as the space has been renovated and repurposed yet again—converted, of course, into a live music venue, which aptly borrows the name “Union Transfer.”
Wildey and Front streets
Blue Ribbon Malt Extract has a very interesting history whose origins can be traced directly back to beer. For example, the name “Blue Ribbon” comes from the blue ribbons that were tied around the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer bottlenecks, a practice that ran from 1882 until 1916. But that’s not the only connection. During the Prohibition years of the 1920s, the Pabst Brewing Company, as well as most other breweries, halted its production of alcohol and shuttered its brewing facilities. While it was closed for what seemed at the time might be indefinitely, Pabst sought a way to somehow put its machinery to use and make some sort of profit. The Perlstein brothers bought a controlling interest in the Pabst Brewing plants and changed the name of the company to Premier Malt Products, Inc. This new company used the existing equipment in the brewing plant to produce canned malts, both with and without hops, under the trade name of Blue Ribbon Malt.
Blue Ribbon Malt products were packaged and marketed as malts for homemakers to use in the baking of cakes and cookies. These goods were available at grocery stores all across America. As innocent as that may seem, and contrary to what the marketing of these products portrayed, the most practiced use for Blue Ribbon Malt products was in the brewing of beer at home, as beer was no longer legally for sale in the United States during the Prohibition years.
In 1933, when the era of Prohibition came to an end, the Pabst family reacquired its breweries and resumed the production of beer. However, having discovered the growing demand for the “Blue Ribbon” products, as well as the popularity of malt in commercial baking and cereal manufacturing, the Pabst family decided to continue the manufacturing of these products within its breweries. In 1981, the malt business was purchased from Pabst by private investors. To this day, the Premier Malt Products company manufactures, sells and distributes the same malt extracts that were sold during Prohibition.
Located at the desolate corner of Wildey and Front streets, this ad for Blue Ribbon Malt Extract is painted on a building that currently serves as offices for General Marine Refrigeration Corporation, established in 1947. There are remnants of an older sign here as well, but due to weathering, it is not clear what appears beneath. Unfortunately, in an effort to clean, or rather mask, the building of graffiti, the lower half of the sign has been painted over in a few mismatched layers of brick-red paint.
Berks and Hancock streets
This is an interesting sign, not just because of its size or lettering style but because of the nature of the business that it advertises. Curled hair manufacturers took the refuse from tanneries, goatskin-leather factories and slaughterhouses and repurposed it into useful products. This refuse was everything the tannery or butchery could not use, such as hair, feathers, entrails and organs of butchered animals. These materials were made into products like scrub brushes or glue. An unpleasant business, surely, but profitable, since there was a constant supply of the raw material and a definite business in its disposal or reuse.
Case in point, this family firm has been working in the curled hair business for well over 125 years; it has been in business from 1880 right up to the present day. Structures on both sides of this stretch of Berks Street still display painted signs advertising the family name and occupation, although the businesses moved out from these buildings decades ago.
The Woll name has been displayed on the five-story brick building on the north side of Berks Street from 1891 on. Architectural details of the building, such as the corner towers, make it seem like a much newer structure, but the building outlines conform to insurance atlases from the 1890s, as well as an illustration of the building in a print advertisement placed by the firm circa 1895. n
Lawrence O’Toole documents many more ghost signs in Fading Ads of Philadelphia, published by History Press (historypress.net). The book is available now at local bookstores, independent retailers and online.
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