The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ghost Signs

A post from several months back at the Diary of a Bluestocking blog discussed "ghost signs", the long-abandoned and usually fading signs that advertise businesses no longer in existence, goods no longer sold, and/or advertising campaigns long since dead and gone*. The writer of that blog, who I'm pretty sure could single-handedly beat me in a knowledge-off (and who is a better writer than I am) routinely demonstrates a concern for the lack of appreciation that most of us have regarding the ever-present artifacts of our relatively recent past. It is a matter that I have had to address on a professional basis, as many of these types of objects are now old enough that we have to consider them for the National Register of Historic Places and California Register of Historic Resources.

Her discussion of ghost signs got me wondering about the role that these play in my home state of California. Generally, my fellow Californians seem to regard these old signs with something of a mixture of acceptance and affection. They serve as an active part of our social landscape - landmarks on routes, makers of our social territories, and re-assuring objects that remain the same every time that we pass them. For many of the people who own businesses to which these signs are attached, they serve as a way of marking that the business is part of the community (even if the business isn't as old as the sign indicates), and for others they serve primarily for their kitch value, creating a new meaning rather than tying in to the community.

It's interesting to me that, while we Californians generally seem ready to replace almost everything - from our consumer electronics to our homes - we rarely seem to be in any hurry to paint over or get rid of these signs. It seems to fit in with our usual attitude - once something is old enough, we consider either venerable or kitch, and we allow it to stay. If it's not old enough, we want to obliterate it before it gains sufficient age to gain new meaning.

And, really, as odd as it is for many people to consider them in such a context, they are part of our archaeological record. There is information in their placement, their preservation (or the occasional attempt to cover them up), and in the ways in which the use of the buildings on which they are emblazoned change that is useful in evaluate our culture. In truth, they can be analyzed in the same way that we analyze the cave paintings of prehistoric peoples.

Although rather different from most ghost signs, there's this one, a reminder of times forgotten, that I took a picture of while in Seattle, Washington:

*And not the feces of ghosts. Sorry to dissapoint you.

No comments: