There is something so mysterious and romantic about the weather-worn signs that still exist amongst the heritage buildings in Inglewood; peeking behind new developments you’ll catch a glimpse of long-forgotten businesses advertised on historic brick walls from a time long before billboards and digital marketing came into play. Ghost signs, the apt descriptor for old hand-painted advertisements preserved through time can be seen throughout Calgary’s downtown, and particularly in Inglewood, Calgary’s oldest community.
“Inglewood has a relatively undisturbed heritage streetscape so it's only natural that it would have a generous helping of "ghost signs"
Local history enthusiast, Alan Zakrison (follow him on Twitter for fascinating stories about our city) has become a passionate expert on the ghost signs that have managed to survive a century or more of snow, chinook winds and re-development.
Alan notes that Inglewood has a relatively undisturbed heritage streetscape so it's only natural that it would have a generous helping of "ghost signs". “Ghost signs can still be seen for any number of reasons: the use of oil-based lead paint and a sign's lack of exposure to sunlight, to name a few,” says Alan. “Both of these, however, are dependent on the survival of the old "signed" building in the first place.”
One such notable building is The Blow Block at 1312 9th Ave SE where one of Inglewood’s most recognizable landmark ghost sign resides: “Let's look at "The Boys" sign on the west side of the building. The "boys" in this case were Fred Thompson and Harry Flumerfelt, whose men's apparel business had its roots in Inglewood,” Alan explains. “Not long after, the shop left Inglewood and moved downtown, where it was still thriving in the early 50's shortly before the original principals retired. What's particularly appealing about this old sign is the fact that we actually have an old picture of it to contrast with its present appearance.
Alan adds, “In the early 1960's, the Calgary Zoo decided to capitalize on the widespread popularity of Yogi Bear, a Hanna-Barbera creation. What makes this 60 year old sign so unusual is that it's still fulfilling its original purpose- telling travellers how to get to the Zoo. For that reason alone, it's not a ghost sign. But there would nevertheless be a hue and cry should anyone attempt to cover it!”
While the ghost signs have managed to survive the elements all of these decades, there has been a few that have seen restoration in recent years, thanks to building owners that are dedicated to preserving Calgary’s past. “I have no real objection to restoring old signs, providing they're no longer legible. In fact, "The Boys" sign might be an ideal candidate for an undertaking like this, since the old image would be a wonderful aid that's not usually available for such work,” says Alan.
One of the most fascinating elements of the ghost signs is how much they tell us about Calgary’s past. Ghost signs tell us stories about businesses once found in a community.
“They can reflect the popular interests of a bygone era: for instance, the fact that so many of the ghost signs found elsewhere in Calgary are tobacco advertisements is particularly telling,” shares Alan. “For these reasons, saving the old signs- wherever possible- is a very good thing. Inglewood has a few old painted signs that have in recent years been covered by billboards. I can't necessarily object to this since the sign underneath is thereby being preserved for a future generation's enjoyment!”
We all walk past these signs all of the time without hardly noticing them - but they are truly such an important part of Inglewood’s past. While Alan admits it is hard to pick a favourite ghost sign because each one has its own fascinating story to relate or be uncovered, he said that the ‘Rudge Bicycle’ sign is high on his list: “It can be seen as you're driving west on 9th Ave, a bit before you come to Fair's Fair,” says Alan.
“This sign dates back to the 50s when Fred Deeley Cycles were in business there; partially obscured is an even older sign for Picardy Candy/Bakery, which company once owned the building earlier on. The vacant lot to the east of the building containing the Rudge sign was in recent years a home for Farmer Jones Used Carz. Should the lot ever be developed to any extent, the sign is at risk of being covered.”
Next time you are walking down the avenue make sure to stop, look up and take note of these fading relics of Inglewood’s bustling past.