Faded signs are the ghosts of advertisers past — once carefully hand-painted on billboards or business walls, then neglected and ignored for decades, they have become markers of our cultural history.
Ghost signs are advertising signs left to fade on buildings and billboardsThere is an online community of ghost sign hunters who photograph and share locationsMining towns are often rich pickings for ghost sign hunters
These derelict advertisements are known as “ghost signs” and they attract a certain type of ghost hunter.
Photographer Brady Michaels and partner and co-author Dale Campisi have toured Australia in an old mini-van to snap and catalogue the elusive phantoms.
“We call them ghost signs because they are ghosts of the past,” Mr Michaels said.
“They are faded and have that ghostly appearance because they are faded, so the term really fits.
“Ghost signs generally refer to the hand-painted signs. My definition is a bit broader, because I will look at any old, faded sign.”
Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills ghost sign at Morpeth, near Maitland in New South Wales.(Supplied: Brady Michaels)
Mr Michaels and Mr Campisi travelled about 40,000 kilometres on the way to producing their book, Signs of Australia.
They are part of a serious and growing sign-hunting community.
“Their mission in life is to document these signs and to share them,” Mr Michaels said.
“They’re not all photographers, but I come at it from a more ‘arty’, photographic point of view.”
The famous Dingo Flour sign in Fremantle, Western Australia, was originally painted in 1940. (Supplied: Brady Michaels )
The photo is only part of the joy of being a “ghost hunter”. Much of the joy also comes from the hunt itself.
“It is definitely a treasure hunt, not knowing what you will find. It’s a bit hit and miss,” Mr Michaels said.
“I start with a search engine. You will find stuff there because there is already a community which includes ex-signwriters.”
What’s on in Watson? The Starlight Drive-In movie sign in Watson, ACT.(Supplied: Brady Michaels)
Mr Michaels said mining towns offer rich pickings as businesses there go through boom-and-bust cycles.
Towns such as Broken Hill, Coober Pedy, Charters Towers, Clunes, and Ballarat are happy hunting grounds for ghost sign hunters.
“Different towns have different relationships with their old signs. Some towns painted over them with a view that old signs suggested towns that hadn’t moved with the times,” Mr Michaels said.
“Others have not been touched and are still there. But there are also old towns that recognise the appeal of these signs to draw people in.”
The Broken Hill Ice and Produce Company sign in Broken Hill, NSW. (Supplied: Brady Michaels)
Author and researcher Amy Tsilemanis tracked down and documented many old signs in and around Ballarat for a heritage project in 2015.
“I was asked to create a digital trail for Ballarat Heritage Weekend and that led to co-producing the website Ballarat Revealed,” Dr Tsilemanis said.
“That site is still available for people to explore as they walk around the city.
“The first trail was about buildings and we created a slider function where you could see the site as it was in the past and what it looks like now.
“For the following year I worked on a second trail, with local historian and archivist Lauren Bourke, finding and photographing ghost signs around town and researching the stories behind them through local libraries and historical groups, Trove, and Public Records Office Victoria.
“It’s always important when doing research like this to credit your sources because so much work goes into collating and maintaining historical information.”
Ballarat Bertie still peddles his bitter in Ballarat.(Supplied: Brady Michaels)
Dr Tsilemanis’s research uncovered signs and stories of dentists, dressmakers, brewers, grocers, hoteliers, and more.
“As a lover of vintage advertising I was drawn to ones like Richards and Co photographers and the vivid descriptions of their wares, or really sweet ones like Jim and Marg Welsh’s dance studio,” Dr Tsilemanis said.
“Many people around town will still remember fondly learning to dance there.
“There’s also the ones that reveal stories of immigration and how people made homes and formed communities in Ballarat.”
Some ghost signs celebrate products which still exist. Others mark brands that have become ghosts themselves.
Holden is as iconic as any Australian brand. The logos and signs that still mark former dealerships have become tourist destinations for Holden owners with a penchant for photography.
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It’s worth the drive to the former Holden garage in Boort, Victoria.(Commons: Mattinbgn)
ABC Ballarat’s classic car correspondent John Emery said car lovers appreciated some of the old signs almost as much as their own old cars.
“These brands were a very big part of Australian history and that’s why there is still so much affection for these signs,” he said.
“There are no new Holdens anymore, so the signs don’t really advertise anything now. But they are a visual reminder of that important history.
“It’s not just car brands. Golden Fleece had service stations all over the place. Golden Fleece no longer exists as a brand but many of the signs are still there.”
Some ghost signs maintain a presence even when they have completely faded or been painted over, Mr Emery said.
“There used to be a Peters Ice Cream sign at Sandown Raceway and that corner became known as Peters Corner,” he said.
“The old signs have been painted over, but that corner will always be known as Peters Corner.”
The ghostly remains of the Koroit Motor Garage in south-west Victoria. (Supplied: Brady Michaels)