Background information on ghost signs
‘Ghost signs are fascinating pieces of urban archaeology.’

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ghost Signs coverWe are indebted to the 2021 book Ghost signs: a London story by Sam Roberts and Roy Reed (see Reading list) for opening the door on the mysteries of advertising signs on walls. The term 'ghost sign' has grown in usage over about ten years or so to denote those traces of trade lettering painted onto walls mainly in the twentieth century. Some people will walk past these traces of history hardly noticing them. Others may wonder ‘why and how did they do that?’.

Characteristics of signs
Palimpsest: this is a word taken from the study of ancient manuscripts; a manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. This term was introduced to us by Bob Allen, Vice President of The Ipswich Society. Wall signs are usually paint on brick or render – and open to the elements. Often proprietors had the fading signs repainted over time. Weathering can gradually reveal layers underneath; this is most clearly demonstrated in Ipswich on the Elliott Street Bakery sign. Things become more confusing where an earlier trade sign is covered by later different trades.

Eyecatcher walls: our expression for areas of buildings, often on busier roads, which are clearly visible to passers-by (pedestrians, drivers, those on public transport including trains) to promote a business or product. ‘Leading edge’ walls such as that seen on the H.W. Turner sign in St Helens Street can be utilised, in this case for vertical lettering. There are several examples in Ipswich where a suitable wall is used to catch the eye of travellers in a particular direction, but are obscured by later buildings next door: ‘Nestlé’s Milk’ in Bramford Road and ‘Family Grocer’ in Derby Road. Sometimes signs are sited in apparently out-of-the-way places; see ‘Symonds for Kodaks’ in Upper Brook Street, ‘Edme Bakery’ in Dogs Head Street, ‘R.H. Kent’ in Dove Street.

Finance: who paid for the sign; what did it advertise? The commonest signs are on the walls or frontages of shops and business premises. These would have been commissioned by the proprietor from a local sign-writer – it makes good business sense to promote your business and to mark its location. “British Flag Stores” (sign now covered) on Wellesley Road, ‘Claydon Hall Dairy’ on Bramford Lane, ‘Scarborow’ in Dial Lane and ‘Confectionery Works’ (now demolished) in Woodbridge Road are all Ipswich examples.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: 'Edme Bakery' sign
Privileges: However, sometimes national brands sought out suitable sites across the country for advertising; this usually benefitted an existing trader by mentioning them in smaller lettering. The ‘Nestlé’s Milk’ sign in large letters in Bramford Road also mentions ‘A. Rouse Grocer and Provision Merchant’  at the bottom. The Hovis company was an enthusiastic promoter of their brand from 1890 when the name was coined. The familiar gold capitals in relief on a green background can still be seen at 113 Bramford Road. Newsagents and tobacconists are famously prone to promote one brand on their shop-fronts with their own names smaller – see the intrusive ‘The Sun’ and ‘News of the World’ signs on 132-4 Fore Street; ‘Emeny’ Newsagent at the top of Grimwade Street used to boast several such privileges. Privileges are mutually beneficial to the proprietor and the national brand.

Another type of privilege is found when a national brand leases a prominent wall from the owner (often a private resident) to advertise their products. We’re thought that the ‘Egertons’ painted sign(s) on the rear wall of Yates Wine Lodge, Tower Street might have counted as a privilege. The main Egertons works and showroom was 100 yards along Crown Street, but it turns out that the Wine Lodge building was once a showroom for the car company? This sign also benefits from a BP petrol privilege. Two other examples may well have been privileges unrelated to the premises are ‘Kays Ways Pays’ (now painted over) in Orwell Place and the nearby ‘Drink Topal Tea’ in Eagle Street.

A number of companies were engaged in finding sites, contracting privileges and applying wall advertisements, some using their own in-house designers and signwriters. This became a big, lucrative business. These signs were the forerunners of billboard advertisements and some of the companies transitioned to the latter approach. Perhaps ironically, original ghost signs (because of their prominent, eyecatcher siting) were often covered by advertising billboards which served to protect the wall signs; these eventually became visible when billboards came to be seen as eyesores and were taken down.

Design and execution
For a smaller space a signwriter might draw up a design on paper (sometimes to get the approval of the proprietor), then draw to sign freehand onto the wall. Oil-based paint would then be applied with a stiff hogs-hair brush to insist the paint into the uneven and porous wall surface. The artist’s mahlstick (or maulstick) are much usedby signwriters to steady the hand and work over existing work without smudging it. All this often working on a high ladder, or scaffolding in indifferent weather. Brick courses were often used to ensure that lettering was level, although all sorts of angled, cursive letterforms were also employed, as seen on Elliott Street Bakery.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: R.H. Kent sign
But how would a large-scale advertisement such as those seen in Hamilton Road, Felixstowe: ‘E.F. Andrews, Decorator’ and Bramford Road, Ipswich (‘W.B. Kerridge, Tailor’) be created, particularly running trade names on a broad curve? Pouncing is the answer:
‘Pouncing is a method of transferring a preparatory drawing for a painting from paper to another surface, such as canvas or plaster. The artist would prick holes around the outlines of the drawing, place it over the second surface, and then dust powder such as chalk or charcoal through the holes. Pouncing can also refer to the dotted outline left on the second surface.’ [Definition from The National Gallery]

So, a full-size paper rough would be created, perhaps in sections, and attached to the wall. Previously the drawing would have been pricked, probably using a pouncing wheel rather than a single stiletto. Then a pouncing bag would be struck or rubbed over the pricked lines to leave a trace on the wall’s surface. This would provide the outlines of the sign for paint to be applied. One can only admire the ambition, skill, craftsmanship and (possibly) foolhardiness of the signwriters who might well be called back some years later to paint over and then repaint the sign, or apply another.

Preservation and loss
Painted wall signs have often survived billboards, electrical neon signs, die-cut plastic, digital screens and other essentially temporary means of proclaiming a trader or product. The old painted signs, once considered to be not worth removing or covering over are more commonly appreciated and enjoyed as small signifiers of our social and economic history. We hope that sand-blasting and pressure-washing of brickwork to remove historic signs is becoming a think of the past. Covering a sign with masonry paint or cement render holds the tantalising possibility that the sign still hides beneath and may one day be revealed.

Repainting: this is a controversial practice. It is justified by the claim that restoring a sign in as near to the original colours and form is the only way of ‘saving’ a weathered and fading sign. A prime example is found in Morecambe: ‘Palladium Cinema’. Closer to home is ‘Smith & Easthaugh’ in Beccles which certainly appears to have been repainted prior to 2006. Our recommendation is ‘beneficial neglect’: old signs have lasted much longer than the original intention; weathering is a natural process which sometimes reveals earlier lettering in palimpsest. Any attempt to protect an historic sign using plastic or polycarbonate sheeting on projecting capstans to create a space between sign and protector is questionable. It might create a damp microclimate which could affect the sign over time and might even attract the attentions of graffiti-sprayers.

Historic painted signs usually have no legal protection. The decision to save or destroy a sign is usually in the hands of the building owner, regardless of outcries by the local community,  historians and petitioners. Occasionally some protection can be provided by inclusion of a building on a Local List compiled by the local authority (see under 'Ipswich Borough Council' on the Links page), but if the sign isn’t specifically mentioned, it may still be in peril. This may also be true of a sign on a Listed building.

As always, if you have additions or corrections to the above text, please let us know using the link below.
Borin Van Loon 2022

Ipswich Historic Lettering: London street signs coverLondon street signs: a visual history of London's street nameplates by Alistair Hall. Batsford, 2020.

Another London-centric collection, but none the worse for that given that the capital probably has the best selection of street naming styles.

All around London, you can find a remarkable public archive of lettering in the city's street nameplates. A unique collection of styles and forms that stretches back to the 17th century, these little labels hide in plain sight; we use their information daily, but too often fail to really notice them. And they aren't just visual anchors, telling us where we are; but temporal anchors too, telling us where we've come from. This expertly curated collection documents the most significant, beautiful and curious street signs, from enamel plates to incised lettering, the simplest cast iron signs to gloriously ornamental architectural plaques. It's a visual and typographical journey through the history of a great metropolis. Along the way, the fascinating stories behind these unassuming treasures are uncovered, revealing where they came from before being affixed to brick or stone for decades to come. We're introduced to the iconic nameplates of the City of Westminster, the stunning tiled signs of Hampstead and the revival nameplates of Lambeth, as well as the ghost signs of the no-longer existent NE postal district. London Street Signs is a striking visual record of our collective history that will appeal to design and history enthusiasts alike.

An excellent book on this niche area of interest – letterform designers, sign-makers and local historians.

Please email any comments and contributions by clicking here.
Search Ipswich Historic Lettering
©2004 Copyright throughout the Ipswich Historic Lettering site: Borin Van Loon
No reproduction of text or images without express written permission