A few weeks ago while browsing some blogs that cover digital humanities issues, we came across a post on Larry Cebula’s blog, Northwest History, which described an assignment that the Eastern Washington University professor had assigned to his public history students. Due to the subject matter of the project, we decided to hold onto this post until Halloween, but without further ado, we present to you: Ghost Signs of Wilmington, Delaware
A ghost sign is a fading painted sign on the side of a brick building or barn which advertises a business or product that no longer exists. Ghost signs are a particularly ephemeral form of history, as they are not generally protected by any sort of historic landmark preservation. The city of New York, for example, has not opted to protect the signs because the city’s Landmark Commission “protects architectural features and… does not consider the painted signs a significant feature,” according to a November 5, 2005 article in the New York Times. Regardless, Cebula makes the important point that “ghost signs are major uninterpreted historical objects in our public spaces” which deserve the attention of public historians, especially since they “are often the only visible record of the institution” they once advertised.
Precisely because ghost signs are so fleeting, they are excellent candidates for preservation and interpretation through digital humanities projects. For a class assignment, Professor Cebula asked his students to photograph ghost signs near their school in Spokane, Washington, and add them to a Flickr pool which features images of similar signs in many cities around the United States. We noticed that the Flickr pool contained only two signs from Delaware and none from Wilmington or New Castle County, so we decided to explore Market Street and see how many signs we could find. Though we only found one true painted ghost sign, we did find several signs in various stages of disrepair for businesses that no longer exist:
The first ghost sign we found was right next door to the Delaware Historical Society – the former Central National Bank building at 501 N. Market Street. Built in 1890, the brick and brownstone bank closed in 1951 and was converted into retail space in 1956. It is now the home of Levy’s Jewelers.
The only true painted ghost sign we found was also located nearby on the rear façade of a building at the corner of 5th and Market Streets. The sign, which appears to be for Coca-Cola, notes that it was “sold everywhere” for just five cents. It’s hard to believe that price now, but since Coke sold for just a nickel from its inception in 1886 until at least 1946, the sign could have been painted at any time during that period.
At 600 N. Market Street, the former Delmarva Power and Light building, marked above its entrance by this cool lightning bolt, is also close to DHS. The building is now home to Delaware College of Art and Design, which has retained many of the building’s original Art-Deco features.
Reynolds Candy Co., built in 1928, was located a few blocks up the street at 703 N. Market Street. The company’s production facilities were located on the second and third floors of the building until the company stopped making candy in 1961; a candy store on the first floor remained open until 1971. The Beaux-Arts building is now the location of Cavanaugh’s Restaurant.
F.W. Woolworth Company operated two stores in downtown Wilmington during the 20th century. One of them is located at 504 N. Market Street and currently houses our Delaware History Museum. The other, located at 839 N. Market Street, was built in 1939 and remained open until 1997. Though the building now houses a Walgreens Pharmacy, the distinctive Woolworth’s W is still visible on the front corner façade.
Finally, although it’s not technically a ghost sign, we were struck by this vintage fallout shelter sign posted on the exterior of Delaware State University’s Wilmington Site at 621 N. Market Street. This tangible reminder of the Cold War gave us the chills!
In addition to the Flickr Ghost Sign pool (to which our images have been added), there are also several other sites on the web that document ghost signs around the world, including a United Kingdom-based site and one that documents signs just up the road in Philadelphia. This Halloween, we invite you to find some ghost signs in your own neighborhood and add them to one of these sites. If you do, please share the link with us in the comments section of this blog post!
On a final note, our posting schedule was slightly disrupted by Hurricane Sandy, so stay tuned later this week for our final American Archives Month post, The Future of Archives Part II.
— Jennifer M.