Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fading Fast

Painted Wall Signs Are Disappearing
But Is Restoration The Answer?

By Elliott Joseph
Photographs By Roz Joseph

Reprinted From Online Preservation
Copyright Elliott Joseph

November 2010

In the heart of Chinatown in Oakland, California, there is an old advertising sign that looks just like new. In fact, it is. The "MJB Coffee Why?"sign, prominently displayed on the side of a century-old building was first painted in 1906, but was redone 15 years ago.

The owners of the building were able to get a grant from the MJB Coffee Company, through the Oakland Museum, to repaint the sign in its original colors. The sign was one of dozens that had been painted on walls throughout California for the company, which wanted to pique people's curiosity about their java.

Across the bay in San Francisco, on a building that housed the Victoria Theater, another old advertising wall sign was revitalized 25 years ago. The 1920 "Albers Flapjack Flour" sign had deteriorated so much that painters had to find photographs of the original wall from the Carnation Company, which owned Albers. Although the black-and-white photographs showed the miner's facial expression and other details on the ad, painters had to guess the mural's colors.

These renewed signs are among the exceptions, however. Thousands of others in cities, towns, and rural areas across America are not as fortunate. They are doomed, either by destruction of the buildings that are their canvasses, a covering coat of paint, or weather and time.

For instance, San Francisco's "Get Kist for a Nickel" sign, whose provocative message promoted the soft drink for more than 40 years, is gone. In the otherwise beautifully preserved town of Nevada City, California, the landmark "Rose Fashion Shoppe" wall sign can barely be read. Exposed to the elements for almost a century, it is simply fading away.

Created for commercial purposes on brick, concrete and other canvasses, old painted wall signs may have lost their power of persuasion, but they have taken on a value of their own as American artifacts.

One of the companies that painted walls was the California firm of Foster and Kleiser. Before it was purchased by another company in 1953, when the service was discontinued, the company had painted walls in hundreds of cities in the Western states. The service was called the "Special Paint" department, says Joseph Blackstock, director of research at the Patrick Media Group, Inc., the company's current owners.

"The term 'Special Paint' was probably more accurate in the years following World War II," Blackstock says, "because we painted on other surfaces as well as on regular walls. We might paint designs on water towers or reservoirs or indeed do murals in commercial establishments."

Almost all outdoor advertising companies offered a wall-painting service in the early years. The paint was usually brightly colored, and signs were painted once a year, sometimes twice or more. Affectionately known as "wall dogs," the painters had to work with many kinds of surfaces.

"Some of the surfaces were so bad," Blackstock says, "they would wear out good brushes in a day or two. Another factor was the weather. In Seattle and Portland, much of the painting had to be done in the rain. In Tucson and Phoenix, it was often in temperatures of over 100 degrees."

The cost of painted advertisements was surprisingly low. In 1929, they ranged from $15 to $50 per month for a three year contract in heavily trafficked areas, with exceptionally busy locations going for $100 per month. Ten years later, the company sold advertisements for as little as $9 per month and as much as $250. More than a few new products got their start on wall ads: Coca-Cola, Signal Oil, and Canada Dry were prime examples.

In addition to using walls in cities, enterprising tobacco companies sent their representatives to rural areas to convince farmers to allow the sides of their barns to become advertisements. One of the most successful companies to do this was Mail Pouch Tobacco: "Treat Yourself to the Best" started to appear on barns everywhere.

"In the early days, the farmer was offered his choice of being paid subscriptions, says Mary Ruth Whorton of the Helme Tobacco Company, which now owns the Mail Pouch brand. Whorton tells the story of a British celebrity arriving in New York who was asked what he thought America was most famous for. Without a moment's hesitation, he replied, "Good looking women and Mail Pouch Tobacco signs."

At first, local sign painters were given the rural jobs. Later, by the 1930s, the firm of William and Ed Burner were handling all the contracts -- as many as 17,000 barns, walls and billboards. The 1965 Highway Beautification Act forced Mail Pouch to paint over many of its ads, since signs within 660 feet of interstate and federally aided highways are now prohibited. In former days, it took about three years to cover all the territories.

Currently, Helme employs one part-time person to paint signs in Ohio, West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania and Western Maryland. They are repainted every five to six years, and new locations are rarely added.

Painting walls is a tradition as old as Pompeii. In old wall signs a time is conveyed that can never return, when milk was delivered at the door, when flappers danced the Charleston and a penny bought a salted pretzel or a jaw-challenging gumball. Is restoring them an option? Some say that those who attempt to restore these ads change them in the process. They look too new, too crisp, too fresh, and too out of place, as if we expected to take their original message seriously. There is something to be said for keeping those that remain in a state of arrested decay.

"I loved those old wall signs," Blackstock says, "and was greatly disappointed when our company discontinued them."

# # #