Photo by Dave Warner – Located on a brick wall at 523-533 Albany St. is a ghost sign that reads: “Howell & Taylor Furniture and Undertaking.” It also contains a famous Mail Pouch ad by the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company of Wheeling, West Virginia.
By DUSTEN RADER
A relic of Americana is disappearing, and there isn’t much being done to stop it.
The origin of at least two large mural-type advertisements in Little Falls that date back to the late 1800s has captured the attention of history enthusiasts.
The hand-painted ghost signs – also known as barn art due to mostly adorning barns – are among the few survivors of tens of thousands estimated to have been created during the early- to mid- 20th century. A once-common form of billboard advertising, the surviving pieces are quickly fading into obscurity.
Dubbed ghost signs due to their faded appearance, the average passersby may never have noticed the paint disappearing from brick walls and barns all around. However, Little Falls residents are fortunate enough to have two examples endure the test of time.
Located on a brick wall at 523-533 Albany St. is a ghost sign that reads: “Howell & Taylor Furniture and Undertaking.” While combing through records at the Historical Society, former President of the Little Falls Historical Society Louis Baum was able to determine that the piece was painted between 1888 and 1900.
The piece first captured Baum’s attention after he was contacted by an individual interested in cataloging the remaining barn advertisements. The inquiry sparked Baum’s curiosity, and he began to notice the ads on many buildings in historical photos of Little Falls.
“I began recognizing on old pictures of Little Falls on many large brick buildings this form of stationary advertising,” Baum said. “It was advertising for local as well as national things. Most of the buildings that had the barn art on them basically are gone.”
The Albany Street piece is of particular interest because it also contains a famous Mail Pouch ad by the Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company of Wheeling, West Virginia. Mail Pouch chewing tobacco ads are among the most common type of ghost signs. The question was immediately raised as to whether the piece was created by beloved wall dog – yes, this is what they were endearingly called – Harley Warrick, who when he passed away in 2000 was widely considered the last of the barn painters in America. Alas, no details on the painters of the Albany Street piece have been discovered and its origin story remains shrouded in mystery.
Where past meets present
While photographing the Albany Street ad, it dawned on Baum that he had for decades been driving past another ghost sign hidden in plain sight.
“There are a lot of things you see on a daily basis that you become oblivious to because it’s always there,” Baum said. “Because a lot of this was done in the 1800s and early 1900s, there was no TV, radio, or internet advertising. Once it was painted on the building, unless it was repainted or something was put over it, the advertisement was there for many years.”
Located on a brick wall at Ace Hardware, 441 W. Main St., is a piece that aptly illustrates the dichotomy of advertising past and present. The ghost sign reads: “Duluth Imperial Flour.” Circa 1890, the ad prominently features a full-color version of an African-American baker holding fresh bread and a bag of Duluth Imperial Flour.
“It shows an African-American with a baker’s hat on that was the basis of a lot of advertising by Duluth Imperial,” Baum said.
Very little is known about the piece, except that it was featured on the cover of Duluth Imperial’s 1890 cookbook. Contrary to many negative depictions of black people created during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Duluth Imperial piece is respectful. Just below the baker hangs a modern ad for Ace Hardware, demonstrating the stark differences between the past and the present.
“It’s a part of early Americana when life was significantly different,” Baum said. “That type of advertising is long gone, but here in Little Falls we many have beautiful murals. It’s not advertising, but it’s a form of art and in many ways, the barn art was both.”
Baum noted several murals in Little Falls worth checking out, including: Near Kelly’s Meat Market facing Ann Street; near Berkshire Bank on Albany Street; near Malone & Malone on Main Street; inside the underground pedestrian tunnel that connects downtown to Canal Place; and on the Antique Mill.
In a city with origins dating back to 1811, examples of history can be found everywhere if one is willing to look. Barn art and ghost signs are one small piece in the social fabric that bridges the gap between early America and the present.
Do you know of any interesting facts about the history of Little Falls? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.