I first came across Ghost Signs on Instagram. I think I had posted a snap of a fading painted sign and when I searched around a bit I was introduced to the expression. Once an entity has been named you can’t help noticing it everywhere.
Ghost signs are peppered all around the city centre. It’s the nature of the beast. The moniker itself is evocative, capturing mystery and fascination in these relics from bygone times, sometimes living memory, often a lot older than that, deep in the Merchant City of Glasgow.
When there was a guided walking tour of Ghost Signs during the Glasgow Open Doors Festival in 2019, I soon began honing a sharp eye to detect the traces of lettering on walls and doorways, over shop windows and on tenement gable ends. The guides had stories to tell: of Mr Benjamin who sold many types of natural sponges, imported from sparkling tropical waters to the factories, workshops, stables and homes of Edwardian Glasgow; of Ann’s shoe shop at the Barras which specialised in small sizes; of the warning to small boys not to play marbles or balls in the courtyard behind Royal Exchange Square. Fellow walkers on the tours pitched in with their own memories or local knowledge and made the excursion most enjoyable.
I even spotted some gilded fonts emerging from under flaking layers of paint in an alleyway which had not already been noted. There’s a little spark of joy in that.
At the end of Lockdown I was looking round for new projects and the Ghost Sign Project was looking for volunteers. Researchers, photographers, social media posters and tour guides. Spark of joy! I sent off my details and offered my services as a humble researcher. Yes, I thought that learning how to use archives would be a useful skill. I’m not bad at googling and writing up results… Maybe in time, I could be good enough to help with a walking tour? I was accepted and duly supplied with a ghost sign to research. Burley’s Hammer Shaft Factory in Ibrox was a wonderful gift as there was an abundance of information about the long and prosperous history of this company. However, another ghost sign for a Strathbungo motor mechanic business near to where I grew up, was more of a task despite this business having existed in my own living memory, it was difficult to draw anything like the vivid tale of the hammer shaft makers. Another ghost sign for a southside pawnbrokers’ sign, dating back to the early 20th C til only a few years ago, was nigh impossible to squeeze the slightest flicker of life from. From this inspiration, I found my forte as I was quickly promoted, or hustled, into the role of tour guide for this year’s Open Doors Days!
With the knowledgeable Fiona as my leader, it was really fun and interesting.
Glasgow’s true commercial peak was the era of the Victorian Empire. Many of the ghost signs we see in the city centre open a little crack of light to the rich world that prevailed but also to the lives of the smaller businesses that glued its edifices together.
A hat maker here, a scrivener there, a typewriter repair business! In those old times, the signwriters prepared their own paints and mixed them to weather the elements and the grime of the city.
Today’s business signs are pre-made plastic and are exchangable and disposable. Still more businesses are digital and inhabiting online market places. In another hundred years, perhaps we will be excavating some archaic form of the internet to discover such tasty morsels of history?!