Ghosts Signs

Every now and then, when no one is looking, I abuse my position as editor and write something for the  North Dakota Quarterly blog. Today is another installment in my reflections on small town life from NDQ’s back yard in Grand Forks, North Dakota. My favorite is The Dog Park at the End of the Universe, but here’s some more: In Praise of TrucksAlone Together in a Small Town, and Bump outs, Logistics, and Citizenship in a Small Town. I pretend that they’re chapters in a fictional book of essays on life in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

It goes without saying that NDQ relies on our outstanding contributors, editors, and subscribers to thrive. Please consider submitting to NDQsubscribing, or downloading our previous volume. For some content from NDQ 86.1/2, click here, and for content from our most recent issue, 86.3/4, click here. Subscriptions do make outstanding holiday gifts!

I serve on our small town’s historic preservation commission. Mostly, this commission advises on the historic impact of projects funded through various federal programs. We also request funds and supervise work under a state block grant that usually supports documenting some part of the community’s heritage. In a few cases, we’re asked to weigh in on preservation issues. Recently, the topic of Grand Forks’ small assemblage of ghosts signs has appeared on the agenda.

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Ghost signs are signs painted on buildings that have faded over the years. In some cases, they’re on sides of buildings that are no longer visible because of more recent construction. In others, they face roads that no longer serve as major thoroughfares because of the traffic pattern changes. In many cases they are no longer relevant to the businesses that occupy the buildings or advertise for a specific business or even industry that is no longer present in a community.

The issue that came up in our committee was whether we should do anything to preserve these signs. Should we explore ways to stabilize their deterioration? Should we consider repainting some of them to bring them back to life? Should we find other strategies, like the creative use of high powered projectors in Winnipeg, that makes these signs more visible, even just for a few hours?  

Thinking about what we should do – if anything – with these ghosts signs preoccupied me on a few frigid walks around town lately. I also started to wonder whether these signs have particular or distinctive value for the community’s past. Not everything that is old is heritage.

I came to three tentative conclusions (happily and loosely inspired by Cailin Desilvey’s Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving (2017)). 

First, ghost signs offer material evidence for the passage of time. Their faded and distressed appearance as well as the walls on which they appear embody the past in a way that our tendency toward a kind of sanitized heritage does not. Like the past itself, they are not neat, tidy, or clear. They often physically resist interpretation as multiple layers of paint and sometimes multiple signs confuse their legibility. In other words, they make the buildings on which they appear look old, but not in a simple way. They remind us that time wears on the fabric of buildings, that people intervene in the process of aging, and that the past is rarely clear. The stratigraphy of these signs communicates the past not as a single place, but as the overlapping sequence of events that often cut into, overwrite, and efface earlier interventions. Their variable preservation also makes us recognize how their location, exposure to light, and easy of access shaped their current state. The better preservation of certain colors, almost certainly because of their lead-based paint, presents materiality at the chemical level. 

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Second, to understand a ghost sign requires attention. Unlike modern media which so often blare their message in colors, sounds, and light, their age has mellowed ghosts signs. They often slip into the shadows, hide around corners, and whisper their message in alleyways or back streets. They also require us to get out of our cars and look up beyond the busy urban facades framed by our car windows. Our attention is more than just looking carefully, but also moving in different ways. Only by walking on foot, craning our necks, and slowing our pace, are we able to see what ghost signs are trying to say. In contrast to the relentlessness of mechanized movement, ghost signs are slower, calmer, and far less insistent in their message. To read them, we have to pay attention.

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Finally, ghost signs are uncanny. They are disconcerting because they both require our attention and defy our ability to understand them clearly. In an era where it has become almost cliche to demand “the facts” and “the truth,” a ghost sign refuses to give either of those up easily (if at all). There is no factuality in a fading and pealing ghost sign. The coats of paint, signs of age, indeterminate message, and obscure location reminds us that most of the past is not arrange in neat categories of facts and truth. Instead, signs of the past remind us that a real past existed with vivid colors, sharp letters, and a clear messages, but today, what is left is much more difficult to discern. 


Bill Caraher is the editor of North Dakota Quarterly and the publisher at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. In his spare time he’s a blogger, associate professor of history, and a field archaeologist.

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