One of the many things attracting the attention of residents and visitors alike are the ghost signs adorning the historic downtowns in Colorado, Loveland included. These signs, from the 1890s to the 1960s, can be even more ghostly when you attempt to uncover the original words and images. The several layers of paint can often provide many messages. Ironically, in their day, the signs were nothing more than a highly visible way to advertise and solicit a product or business.
Ghost signs are making a comeback in many communities where residents are working to save these pieces of retail history. The reasons they still exist are plentiful, however, the primary reasons are the durable lead-paint used in the early to mid-20th century which adheres well to masonry; location of the property which provided protection to the sign from the elements; and current historic preservation efforts to ensure they are around for decades to come. The sign painters of this time period worked quickly and were quite skilled at painting. The “wall dogs”, as they were called, generally worked for major sign companies. Signage was primarily on privately owned barns in the country and commercial walls in smaller communities. The “wall dogs” arrived with smaller drawings in hand and literally sized up the wall, smooth or bowed, and crafted the image onto the wall. The painter often mixed the colors on site to get the exact color needed for the job. These painters traveled from town to town to locations determined by company representatives. A little customizing was done when the owner of the wall’s business name was added above the product being advertised. These early advertisement signs were often painted over when the building was sold, thus the reason why there can be multiple layers on one sign.
Signs placed in communities were generally soft drinks, coffee, beer, and tobacco. A Coca-Cola sign from 1958 in Old Town Fort Collins was preserved and touched up in 2011 (Coopersmiths) to make it more legible. The conservation treatment saturated the original colors bringing back the intensity of the design. It also made the underlying signs more visible to the naked eye. It took almost three weeks. Many thanks to Carol Tunner who led the Coca-Cola sign preservation efforts in Fort Collins. If you know of a ghost sign where you live, please let us know and we’ll add it to the collections! For more information and a self-guided tour visit fcgov.com/ghostsigns.
Written by HLC Board member Sharon Danhauer