ghost signs columbia tn
Ghost sign on Mike’s building in Columbia TN

The comeback of nostalgic advertising in small town USA

Have you ever caught yourself trying to decipher a ghost sign?

You know — those extra large, faded advertisements for brands like Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco and Coca-Cola you see flaking off the side of brick buildings and barns? That art you’re admiring is actually a major piece of American advertising history known as ghost signs– the remains of a hand-painted brick ad that was big enough to catch the attention of travelers and consumers alike to buy American products like King Midas Flour, Maxwell Coffee, and Owl Cigars.

Painted decades before the Great Depression, brick ads were considered the main advertising platform beginning in 1890. (The same year W B Purvis submitted his patent for the fountain pen.) But, whoever’s steady hand was behind these sky-high signs surely used something stronger than a delicate fountain pen to bring them to life. It took lead paint, brushes, and the grit of the All-American Walldog.

LEFT: Vernor's ginger ale ghost sign in Detroit. Photo by @bealebo RIGHT: Trenton China Pottery in Old City, Philadelphia photo by @danehorvath
LEFT: Vernor’s ginger ale ghost sign in Detroit. Photo by @bealebo RIGHT: Trenton China Pottery in Old City, Philadelphia photo by @danehorvath

It’s an appropriate nickname given to the uncredited, commissioned artists who worked like dogs under the scorching sun and against the frigid air for 10 hours a day. Tethered to their canvas high above the ground, the painters dangled off the side of the building balancing their brushes and buckets of paint. Wall. Dogs. Makes sense right? Their flawless paint strokes produced the brick ads we see today up until the 1960s when neon signs became more relevant. It has been about 100 years since this advertising style was relevant, but folks like Scott Lindley are here to proclaim ghosts signs are back from the dead.

LEFT: Scott Lindley and fellow Walldog. RIGHT: Community of Danville, IL showing up to paint a brick ad in their town. Photo credit Scott Lindley
LEFT: Scott Lindley and fellow Walldog. RIGHT: Community of Danville, IL showing up to paint a brick ad in their town. Photo credit Scott Lindley

In a century bombarded with flashy emblements, pop-up ads, and commercials, brush-to-brick advertising is making a comeback thanks an organization called The Walldogs. As its event coordinator and a decade-long Walldog himself, Scott’s mission is to help get The Walldogs work again by painting the unique history of small towns across America one wall at a time. Scott’s goal turned reality by Nancy Bennett, who organized the very first Walldogs meet up in Allerton, Iowa in 1993.

“Walldogs are above everything else, storytellers,” proclaims Scott. “We say that the first Walldog was a caveman. Just sitting there in his cave painting on the wall the events of his day. The Caveman started this movement of painting pictures of the past!”

walldogs-murals-2
LEFT: Walldog paints a sign in Arcola, IL RIGHT: Walldog in training Bulter, PA Photo credit Scott Lindley

So far, more than 300 Walldogs have painted 548 brick ad murals in 26 towns across America and counting. Scott fulfills Walldog requests submitted from communities coast-to-coast that need a shot of life and have a story to share. Once a town is selected, The Walldogs dive into their history and begin to collaborate with the community on sign designs. The one rule they have: no commercial murals. Walldogs insist on only painting historic event murals and advertisements for businesses that don’t exist anymore but had a hand in the town’s history. When everything is ready to go, Scott makes a call to Nova Color, an American made long-lasting acrylic paint company in California, and they get to work.

 

walldogs-murals-1
LEFT: Paint brushes ready to go RIGHT: Walldog goes to the sky Marshall, IL Photo credit Scott Lindley

“When we come to town, we average about 100 to 200 people per project,” explains Scott. “While many professional Walldogs are on site, there are loads of volunteers who want to be a part of the action, too. That means between seasoned Walldogs and untrained volunteers, art students, and more these murals showcase multiple influences and styles. It boosts confidence and turns folks into Walldog junkies after they dip their first brush.” 

walldogs-murals-5
Star Fireworks Manufacturing Co. Created displays for Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan and William Wrigley. All made in Danville, IL Photo credit Scott Lindley

It’s interesting to see how the reputation of a Walldog has evolved because back in the early days they simply showed up, painted, and hitchhiked to the next town to earn their next paycheck. Today, it’s more of an honest investment and community project that brings pride to the people.

walldogs-murals-8
A page of out of The Arcola Record sharing the news. Arcola, IL Photo credit Scott Lindley

“Over the years, these events have transformed into more of an education opportunity for folks,” says Scott. “People want to feel like they’re a part of it and we love that. We want to unite friends and neighbors using historic art as the bridge and it has proven to be long-lasting and uplifting.”

Today, brick ad advertising is being recognized for the nostalgia and historic value it adds to buildings and the community. Ever the eager bunch, the Walldogs are currently taking submissions for small towns looking to share their history one wall at a time. And it’s as easy as a Facebook message to Scott.

Photo credit Scott Lindley
Before he was a decorated war hero, Joe Ernst was a hero in another away. While working at a restaurant during the time of segregation, he was told to turn away a bus of African American people including Ella Fitzgerald, and refused. Photo credit Scott Lindley

“The best part about my job is establishing bonds and telling stories,” says Scott. ” It’s addictive because you want to hear them all! After working with a town, I consider myself a part of it. Proud to say that to this day I’ve helped organize 102 murals and that I belong to five communities all around the country and counting.”

Are brick ads making a return to your town or do you know where one is? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Our classic logo patch is now on a navy blue mesh back trucker hat with snapback adjustable closure. A great summer hat for fans young and old.
navy patch hat banner
CLICK HERE TO SHOP NOW NAVY TRUCKER CLASSIC LOGO PATCH HAT
45 Comments

45 thoughts on “Walldogs — The Artists Behind Ghost Signs”

  1. Marilynn Sollars

    Yep, I look at (especially the very old ones) the GORGEOUS old treasures!! I love the article; it’s about time someone gave some attention to these remarkable eye candy artists……………and attention to the modern contemporaries…. So many new paintings are being added across the country….
    THANKS Mike, for all you do…..I keep at least forty of the American Picker shows on my record-list on Direct TV….my hub and I watch them OVER AND OVER… as I lifetime picker, it’s where I feel ‘at home’ !!!!!

  2. Kenneth Skeen

    Just love hearing from you all and seeing the history as it once was reborn now! WallDog really trips my heart! Here, in Jacksonville, Or., (a National Historic Town)there is a faded wall art on a old brick building in town. I love it more each time I see it. I may try to photo it and send. Jacksonville was the original seat of Jackson County government, and is where gold was first discovered in the early-mid-1800’s. Rich Gulch Trails is very historic and our town in undermined-webbed by tunnels the early Chinese dug hunting gold. I have seen many tunnels out in the Applegate Valley where they would see an embankment and just dig straight in under the tree roots hunting for gold. Good pickin’ and keep smilin’ .. And, Dani, you are just one fine manager-organizer and perfect “employee”! Love the name as it is my Grand-daughters name too!
    Best to all!

  3. Freda Wagman

    I watch your program every chance I get. I have many of them recorded so I can watch any time I want to. I am long since retired, but have been involved with cars for many years. I was a charter member of the Classic T-Bird Club in Houston and have memorabilia from that. if you are interested, I would like to sell it. Shop manuals, newsletters, T-Bird sign, small model of 1957 T-Bird. (with box), and more. The club was often invited to participate in local parades around Houston and San Antonio. Of course, we always received a lot of cheers and attention when our parade of beautiful T-Birds rode past the crowds.

    I’m writing mainly to comment on the photo of the Vernor’s building in Detroit. I grew up in Detroit and we used to walk downtown from school and sit at the soda fountain on the first floor of the building and drink ginger ale floats. Those were the days. When I moved to Texas, I couldn’t find Vernor’s anywhere.

    I love your show and will continue to watch it. I would love to hear back from you. Keep up the good work.

  4. Deborah Scearce

    Great article! I live in and work in Tacoma, WA. There are Several Old brick buildings downtown Tacoma that have huge
    Ghost Signs! Love them and hope they are here to stay.!

    Deborah :)

  5. Bernie Malis

    El Segundo, Ca. has been painting old style and new style signs on their buildings for several years now. They show things like 1920’s Standard Oil refinery. El Segundo derived it’s name from this refinery which built the town. El Segundo is Spanish for “the second”. This refinery is Standard Oil’s “second refinery. They also have aerospace as a theme as El Segundo was home to Hughes Aircraft, Northrup, Aerospace Corp., Grumman, and many more. Recent ones depict common everyday themes like children playing, etc. .

  6. Paul Hershberger

    Hey I have some antique stuff in my shop that you can take a look at, 2 scales that might have been used in Grocery store or meat market, a vise, and a crosscut saw. Thank you

  7. Debbie

    My hobby is photographing old buildings, especially old textile mills, and consider myself lucky when I discover a ghost sign on the subject. One of my favorites I came across while photographing a mill in South Carolina and found the ghost sign of the mill’s name painted there.

  8. Sally Summers

    I live in Modesto Calif. Home of American Grafitti. We have paintings in our downtown area depicting the car hops at A & W Burgers and other paintings with cars and advertising. So i know how wonderful it is to go back in time Thanks for your show I have them all recorded so I can watch them over and over

  9. Tom Denning

    My favorite wall art is in New Orleans,La.
    It’s in the French Quarter off of Bourbon st.
    The sign is from the You Need a Biscuit Company.
    Later to change it’s name to NABISCO!
    I have a photo somewhere.i’ll post it if I find it.

  10. Dale Manor

    Thanks for the story Mike. I am a Walldog artist and have been painting with the group since 2002. My wife and I met at a Walldog event in 2009 and we got married at another one in 2011. It’s been a great pleasure and experience painting historic murals across the Country for the past 15 years. I am actually the artist that designed the ballon mural at the beginning of the story. Looking forward to more events and helping to put the history of towns up so people can learn more about their communities and enjoy the arts! Thanks.

    1. Mike McEvers

      Hi Dale,
      Pretty cool that we’re getting increasing, positive press re: our passion, talent and devotion to help these cities brand their history through our work.
      I’ll be joining both WallDog events (this 8th year for me) and hope some of these readers will support our ‘paint slingin’ in Wisconsin and Rhode Island. No doubt I’ll see you there ‘ brother of the brush’.

      1. Bruce

        I live in Beaver Dam WI where you just finished your projects. They look marvelous. I know the weather was against you. Everyone did a wonderful job. Thank everyone for us. It has been a long time that you would see that many people downtown, hope they keep coming. Thanks again.

  11. Joe Bartolotta

    Awesome article on the wall dogs, I often look at the old brick advertising in Dubuque and wonder if any one would take the time and talent to restore this wonderfull part of America.

  12. Janet Schwent

    I loved this article as well! Living in a historical small town things like this intrigue me. What I see more around here though is the barn roofs or sides that were painted for advertising. The small towns didn’t have the brick buildings but lots of barns!

  13. Lashelle Bynum

    I love Ghost Walls !!! As a photographer in Baltimore. I shot almost 200 of them. When i first started shooting them i just did because i loved them. Then one day i decided to dig up the history, i spoke with some companies that used them and it just as exciting. I plan on doing an exhibit this year on them…..Lashelle of Baltimore

  14. Greg Harrod

    The older sections of downtown Norfolk, Va., especially along Granby Street, may still have some ghost signs on the buildings there, representing businesses that catered to military personnel, such as tailor shops and uniform shops. I remember one such tailor shop ghost sign that advertised “Middy blouses”, a Midshipmen’s uniform item. They were still there about 10 years ago.

  15. Tony Petros

    Mike,

    We watch just about every show that comes on the History Channel – can’t get enough of them.
    Keep up the good work – we love it.

    Tony

  16. Daniel Redman

    Our family has a special connection to this type of signage as it was one of the ways my Great-Grandfather supported our family. Walking with my Mother as a youngster in New York City, I remember her pointing out the few remaining murals that my “Daddy Matt” had worked on. I never met my Great-Grandfather, so it was very exciting as a child to picture him somehow suspended high above the streets with a paint brush in his hand. As an adult, I still think it was a cool way to make a living. I feel the little bit of artistic ability I have must have been passed down from him. Every time I pass a building mural, new, or in “ghost” condition, I not only appreciate it for it’s artistic and historical merit, it also reminds me of family.

  17. Deb Edwards

    I live in Danville Illinois… the Walldogs have been to my community twice now! They are all awesome folks. The children of the community even got involved with special artwork in our downtown area. Great bunch of people with a great commitment to restoring history!

  18. Nina Stefanick

    I love the article about the ghost walls. I can still see some in Philly, but they seem to be disappearing quickly. I love your show, I watch the reruns whenever I can.

  19. Jude Near

    LOVE these old signs – see them on many of our back roads drives thru small town, rural Kansas. I’m am excited to see them coming back. Ahhh, nostalgia. I am especially partial to the newspaper page one in the story. Let’s bring ’em back everywhere!
    GO WALL DOGS! (also think this would be a fun/cool/educational project for art students in several communities.)

  20. Mark Yarris

    Great informative article. If you want to see some revival brick wall and barn advertising style painted artwork, drive the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30) in Pennsylvania between Irwin and Gettysburg. The numerious beautiful and colorful outdoor wall art pieces were commission a few years back by the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor in Pennsylvania to commemorate the Lincoln Highway and the towns it passed through.

  21. Warren Hill

    That is so cool! Glad to see this great art is making a comeback. Reall good article, thanks for sharing this story.

  22. Karen Butler

    We were motorcycle riding today in northern Illinois (we live in Florida) and one of our favorite things is to ride through small towns and see the buildings. We saw several ghost signs in the towns. We love doing this!

  23. Sarah Brsquet

    We live just outside Beaumont, TX. We have a “Walldog” in this area. For years he has painted murals on buildings around here. He’s an artist and a preserver of local history.
    His name is Gary Landry and lives in Groves, Tx.
    Would be great to see you and Frank visit a few “Walldogs” across this great country.
    We absolutely love your show.
    Sarah & Dana Braquet
    Hamshire, TX

  24. Jim Prugh

    While removing some parging from the interior of a historic property, we discovered a ghost sign for Fitz Overalls. They were manufactured in the early 1900s in Kansas City. The logo is a portly gentleman about ten feet high. This ghost sign was on the exterior of a building until the space between it and the next property was enclosed, creating a new retail space. Check it out at The Ivory Thimble, 124 N Main St, Lindsborg, Kansas. The owner is a fashion designer–how cool is that!

  25. David Pokrywka

    Two ,”ghost signs” I know of. One is here in Lexington, KY on west Shortt St. advertising Nabisco Crackers. The other is in downtown Danbury, CT. advertising Sen-Sen for 5 cents. Several outstanding mural artists. The most recent mural is an Oak tree with mummy outside a motorcycle club, that happens to be opposite a Federal Courthouse.

  26. Joe dertinger

    Never gave much thought to these till I was in north Carolina earlier this month
    Seeing signs for local business unlike
    In my neighborhood
    East meadow NY
    Was nice observing, and thinking about this post, and the history
    Cheers

  27. Connie W White

    Mike,
    Just a tidbit of information regarding the Martin & Vaughan Hardware Store in the photo. Mr. Vaughan’s name was Robert E. Lee Vaughan, and was my husband’s 1st cousin, 3 times removed (his grandfather was my husband’s 3rd great-grandfather). If you are interested in any family information about Robert E. Lee Vaughan, I can help you with that. I also have a copy of a newspaper article from 1964 when the business was sold to the Porters.
    I love your show, and admire your love of history. Keep up the great work!
    Connie

  28. Richard Zeitler

    Just want too thank all you guys for the show . I have a 1954 Chevy 3100 p/u . Needs some parts to keep it just the way it is. No repop thing. Also have lots of toy and trains by store and garage sales . Again thank from an old man too give life in his later years. I have Radio take show Monday at 10:00 am on kroc am.com talk about car problem for the last 26 years. Auto tech 101. Rochester MN. Safe travels .

  29. William DeRuyter

    Hey Pickers ,I love these ghost signs on walls and trying to figure out just what they are for and what Wall Dog painted them .there was a great one on the side of an old hardware store in my hometown of Patchogue, Long Island, New York .SHANES Hardware Store its gone out of business due to the big box stores and has become a microbrewery now .But they left the Ghost sign on the brick wall proudly showing that in the 1900s this was Shanes Hardware Store .

  30. Reimund Cabel

    Firstly,really enjoy American Pickers and all that rare U.S. made treasure.As a Canadian from Winnipeg,(Chicago of the North),we have some of that good old American and European antique cool stuff.I would encourage all Americans and Canadians to explore there old city/country buildings.We have some old original walldog art here in Winnipeg still in our downtown core area.Explore and learn your historic roots.

  31. Joe Belt

    I walldogged off and on for over 30 years………….luckily, I mostly work in my studio, now. But, I miss the comments while I was painting and, of course, after I finished……………my toughest was a giant loaf of bread on corrugated metal.

Leave a Reply to Daniel Redman Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>