It took me by surprise one morning, several months ago, looming four stories above the corner of Park and Bernard. An old advertisement, painted on the brick wall of an apartment building, had seemingly appeared overnight. The faint outline of words – a company name and an advertising slogan – were there, albeit barely legible. I had never noticed the ad before; it was if the right amount of moisture and light had convinced it to reappear, at least for a few hours. It was, in a word, ghostly.
It’s no surprise, then, that these painted ads, faded by age and sunlight, are known around the world as “ghost ads” and “ghost signs.” They are the ephemeral remnants of a form of advertising that was once ubiquitous. Hundreds of ghost ads lurk on building tops, alley walls and brick façades around Montreal, yet, somewhat surprisingly, few Montrealers seem to notice them. Ghost ads are intriguing, eccentric and disappearing – catch then while you can.
Kate McDonnell, a graphic designer and editor of the Montreal City Weblog, has spent years admiring and photographing ghost ads. “I like how these things have lingered into a very different era, the reminder that a hundred years ago people were living in these streets,” she tells me. “They’re at once a very down-to-earth reminder of commercial ventures of the past, and a very fanciful intrusion of history into the modern day.” McDonnell points to some remarkable ghost ads around town, such as a bilingual ad for the North End Welding Co. (4660 Grand Pré), half-covered with vines and tucked away in a Plateau garden near Laurier metro. Some of the more interesting ghost ads are those which have been painted over; eventually, as the paint fades, both layers are visible at once. High above the Balmoral Block (305 Ste. Catherine West), a sign promotes “Clothes for Man and Boy,” over which a more recent slogan, “Good Clothes and Nothing Else!” has been painted in white.
Ghost ads are a part of what Dinu Bumbaru, the policy director of Heritage Montreal, calls the “archaeology of the city.” They are windows into an earlier metropolis, offering brief glimpses at what was bought and sold by the people who once lived in our apartments and walked our streets. They chart Montreal’s linguistic geography (ads in some neighbourhoods are in French; in others, they are in English). They hint at the emergence of graphic design and marketing strategies, such as the rise of brands: although most ghost ads straightforwardly promote a company, some hint at the rose of global brands such as Coca-Cola and 7-Up.
The best introduction to Montreal’s ghost ads is a stroll down St. Laurent Blvd., starting at the Van Horne viaduct, where the massive Van Horne Warehouse, with its iconic water tower, is festooned with faded ads proclaiming its storage capabilities. Several blocks to the south, at number 4612, is an ad for Nugget Shoe Polish, partially hidden next to a narrow garden walkway leading to a secretive duplex. Three blocks down from there, past an ad for the British Manufacturing Company (number 4158), is the old sign for Simcha’s Fruit Market (number 3953). Scrawled haphazardly above the store’s original English sign is a French translation, rendering the entire thing strangely attractive but entirely unreadable, an amusing metaphor for Montreal itself.
Continuing down the Main, there is an old Coke ad (number 3850), a sign advising you to “Be Wise – Have Electric Light” (in the alley behind number 3600) and another promoting Corlicelli Sewing Silk (number 1029). On the way, near the corner of de Maisonneuve Blvd., is one of Montreal’s most remarkable ghost ads, recently uncovered by demolition, which depicts a pinkish, jovial man hoisting a bottle of Lea & Perrins’ Worcestershire Sauce. “Look out for imitations!” he urges passers-by.
In a city as old as Montreal, it is easy to get caught up in the grand sweep of history. Ghost ads might seem individually unimportant, but together they add texture to the past, creating a sense of what everyday life was like for Montrealers of years gone by. Yet ghost ads are threatened by time and neglect. Heritage Montreal recently urged the city to catalogue and protect the fifty-odd ghost ads remaining in excellent condition. Dinu Bumbaru suggests that preservation, not restoration, is best way to maintain Montreal’s ghost ads. Repainting them, after all, would eliminate their ghostly impact.
I haven’t seen the ghost ad at Park and Bernard since that morning last spring. Of course it’s still there, but on most days it looks like nothing more than a dark smudge on dirty brick. One day, though, it will return, for a few minutes or a few days, to haunt us with memories of a city past.
Another version of this article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on September 28, 2006. For more photos and information on ghost ads, visit Flickr’s Ghost Signs group or look at photos with the ghostsign tag.
Tags: Advertising, Ghost Ads, Montreal