Ghost signs at Exchange District campus provide a glimpse into the past
By: Alyssa Etsell
At the Red River College (RRC) Exchange District campus, people walk among ghosts.
Winnipeg is home to one of the largest collections of ghost signs in North America.
These fading, historical advertisements were hand-painted on the sides of buildings beginning in the 1880s and ending in the 1940s, said Matt Cohen. Cohen is a self-proclaimed ghost sign enthusiast, and founder of the website Ghost Signs, a digital archive of ghost signs in Winnipeg’s Exchange District developed by the Advertising Association of Winnipeg. “We had one of the largest sign-painting communities at the turn of the century,” said Cohen. “It was quite a craft to go paint an ad on the side of a building.”
Over the years, the ghost signs faded. But Cohen said because of a combination of the brick buildings underneath and the lead-infused paint used at the time, the signs are still visible.
These ghost signs are included in the protection that all structures received when Winnipeg’s Exchange District obtained historic site status in 1997.
Cohen said there are close to 150 ghost signs still visible in the area.
“Almost every structure has a sort of sign talking about the business or products inside,” Cohen said.
The six-storey Tees and Persse building, located at 315 William Ave., is a prime example. Constructed in 1905, the building was integrated into RRC’s Exchange District campus in the early 2000s.
At one of the main entrances to the building on William Ave., the remnants of several advertisements are still visible. These advertisements are for products that Tees and Persse carried in their warehouse, Cohen said. The top sign displays a list of items that people would have been able to get from Tees and Persse, while the bottom sign advertises for Moyer School Supplies.
Spotting other ghost signs on the building may take a closer look.
Inside the atrium of the Exchange District campus, there is a photo-realistic style advertisement of a Carnation Condensed Milk can tucked next to the elevators near the ceiling of the William building. On the outside of the building, there is a sign that reads “USE EDDY’S MATCHES” on a raised penthouse piece of the roof.
At the height of their popularity, these hand-painted advertisements worked almost as well as billboards do today. Cohen said sign painters would travel in groups from one city to the next and paint the same sign again and again.
Tees and Persse had a nearly identical building in Saskatoon, and the same sign painters likely painted the advertisements still seen on that building today, said Cohen.
While the ghost signs in the Exchange District often go unnoticed, the artists behind them may be even lesser-known.
“My grandpa was a sign painter, but he never really talks about it,” said Ayla Manning, a first-year student in RRC’s Graphic Design program. “When I see the ghost signs, I think about the painters and whether or not they passed their skills or stories on.”
Manning said she didn’t notice the ghost signs before someone pointed them out to her. Now, she looks for them all the time. For the people who do notice them, they’re subtle reminders of the past.
“I think they’re interesting to different people for different reasons,” said Cohen. “Some people might appreciate them for typography, while others for historical purposes.”
So why did they disappear in the first place?
Cohen said the world of advertising picked up the pace in the 1950s, with campaigns launching and being renewed faster than sign painters could keep up with. Hand-painting advertisements on the sides of buildings no longer made sense, and the art form was slowly phased out in favour of billboards and other more cost-effective forms of advertising.
Today, these fading ghost signs still serve a purpose, although it’s a slightly different one than they used to: they’re reminders of the rich history of the buildings they cover.