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History hunting: Searching for Boston’s ghost signs

Dave Brigham of Newton photographed a ghost sign on A Street in Boston. Most such signs date from 1880 to 1950 — the heyday of outdoor sign painting.
Dave Brigham of Newton photographed a ghost sign on A Street in Boston. Most such signs date from 1880 to 1950 — the heyday of outdoor sign painting. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Most weekends, Dave Brigham rides the train into Boston and goes for a walk. On a sunny afternoon in July, he begins at South Station, walks a block north, then cuts southeast on the Congress Street bridge to cross Fort Point Channel.

Brigham, 54, walks briskly, scanning the skyline. He slows when something catches his attention, but cautiously — he’s been known to walk into traffic or collide with a passerby, eyes glued to something up ahead.

Some days, Brigham sets out without an agenda. Today, he’s hunting for ghosts.

Once you start to look for them, you see them everywhere: “ghost signs,” also known as “fading ads” or “brick ads.”

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These terms usually refer to faded, painted advertisements on brick walls, although the definitions aren’t hard and fast. Ghost signs remain on the sides of old buildings, mostly in cities or former industrial areas, and continue to promote their messages: the names of long-defunct businesses, furniture stores, restaurants, mortgage companies, cereal brands, or places to buy corsets, fountain pens, carriages, lumber, boating supplies, or Coca-Cola.

Most date from 1880 to 1950 — the heyday of outdoor sign painting — although the vintage varies, and information for any given sign is often incomplete.

Dave Brigham, a history buff from Newton, looked for ghost signs as he walked around the Seaport District.
Dave Brigham, a history buff from Newton, looked for ghost signs as he walked around the Seaport District.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A city as old as Boston has lots of ghosts, and Brigham keeps finding new ones. There’s the big Quaker Oats sign in the South End, or the other Quaker Oats sign, in Cambridge. Near the Seaport district, there’s a huge sign for the old Necco factory. In Chinatown, a sign advertises Gamsun Restaurant, from the 1950s.

Most weekends, the stay-at-home dad from Newton will pick a neighborhood, hop on the commuter rail, and explore. He’ll photograph what he sees, research it, and then write up posts for his blog, “The Backside of America,” where Brigham features “the abandoned, dilapidated history of the good ole US of A.” Anything related to local history fits the bill — historic plaques, old bricks, old storefronts, old doorknobs.

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And of course, old signs. Fifteen minutes down Congress Street, Brigham spots one. “Oh, right there!” he says, and points. At the intersection of Congress and A Street, yellow-and-black text runs down the side of a reddish brick facade: “Berman & Sons.” There’s more text going down, but it’s barely legible: something about “fabrication of metals,” something, something.

An old Quaker Oats ad above a storefront on Mass. Ave in Cambridge.
An old Quaker Oats ad above a storefront on Mass. Ave in Cambridge. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The letters extend farther right, but construction obscures the view. Another sign — not old — announces the space will soon become luxury lofts. That’s another thing about ghost signs: In a rapidly gentrifying city like Boston, the signs are subject to the whims of developers and city planners. These signs happen to be in the Fort Point Channel Landmark District, one of Boston’s protected historic districts, so they’re probably safe. But in his years of walking, Brigham has seen a few buildings with ghost signs get torn down. He’s also seen signs covered by new buildings.

A sign in the Seaport.
A sign in the Seaport. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Which makes Brigham’s photography excursions all the more urgent, and ghost signs all the more interesting.

In recent decades, history buffs with mobile phones have flocked to social media and personal blogs to record their research and share photos of ghost signs. (Search #ghostsign on Instagram and you’ll get more than 70,000 hits.) The Internet has acted as catalyst. Ghost signs pop up in the writing of graphic designers, photographers, history enthusiasts, artists, sign painters, and curious posters. They all want to know more.

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There are bloggers, writers, and photographers documenting ghost signs in cities throughout the United States. Molly Block takes photos in Houston. Ken Jones posts from California. Benjamin Passikoff snaps photos around New York City, where ghost signs abound. Closer to home, blogs like Keith Sliney’s Boston Signage Project and Brian Hogue’s Lowell Ghost Sign Project document the ghost signs scattered across urban New England.

The signs have undeniable poetic appeal.

William Stage, a longtime journalist from Missouri, might have coined the term “ghost sign” in 1989, when he wrote “Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America.” “They linger on old buildings, echoing the robust commerce of times past,” Stage wrote. “Ghost signs become highlighted under certain conditions, such as the rosy glow of sunrise or sunset, or in the first minutes of a rain.”

Sam Roberts, a ghost sign blogger from London, remembers the first time he saw a ghost sign. He was walking down the same street he always did, except on a different side of the road. He noticed a faded, painted sign: “Fountain pen repair.” Roberts was fascinated. Equally fascinating: Nobody on the Internet seemed to know much about the sign, or who put it there, or when.

Ghost signs fade into the brick of this building on Blackstone Street.
Ghost signs fade into the brick of this building on Blackstone Street.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Roberts launched his blog, Ghostsigns, in 2007, and started researching his questions. “It was like this never-ending rabbit warren,” Roberts said on the phone from his home in London. “If you find out one thing, then that unlocks clues, and it’s, you know, there’s this sort of treasure hunt. It’s quite exciting.”

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He’s now at the center of a global network of ghost sign enthusiasts, many of whom happen to paint signs for a living. Meredith and Josh Kasabian run Best Dressed Signs, a sign-painting business in Dorchester, and met Roberts through their shared interest in the online sign-painting community.

Both Kasabians say that they look for ghost signs whenever they’re out and about in Boston.

“It’s like, once you start knowing about it, you start seeing them everywhere,” Meredith says. Her favorite signs are huge ones for “New England Storage Warehouse Company,” splashed across the front of an old factory near Uphams Corner. She also likes “Bostonia Cigars” on Blackstone Street, which dates to the 1880s and is visible from the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

Brigham grew up in Simsbury, Conn., with no ghost signs in sight. He moved to Boston in 1991 and fell in love with the layers of history. “It just seemed so old and kinda foreign to me,” he says. Ghost signs captured his imagination. “It’s like this weird nostalgia for something that I never even knew about as a kid,” he says, laughing.

Brigham launched his blog in March 2010, after moving out of the city. His following is small — mostly friends and other New England local-history aficionados. “I’m not doing it for anyone other than myself,” he says.

As he walks, Brigham catches sight of another sign, a few blocks down: a huge rectangle of yellowish paint and overlapping letters, at the same height as the cars driving on the elevated street above.

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It’s a good example of a palimpsest: layers of signs painted over one another, maybe two or even three times. It’s possible to make out only a few letters — a P, L, A, S — maybe the beginnings of “plastic,” Brigham wonders aloud.

He’s seen this one before. But he snaps a picture again, just in case.

“Because, you know,” he says, between clicks, “in 10 years, it might be gone.”

Aman walked dogs past a ghost sign of a hand pointing down on Marshall Street.
Aman walked dogs past a ghost sign of a hand pointing down on Marshall Street.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Nora McGreevy can be reached at noramcgreevy@gmail.com or on Twitter @mcgreevynora.