Ghost Signs

Brum's Ghost Signs is dedicated to documenting and sharing stories about old hand-painted wall signs painted on buildings across Birmingham. These signs are more popularly known as 'ghost signs'. 


The first use of the term ghost signs to describe a faded wall advertisement was first coined by William Sage in his seminal book Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America, published in 1989. 


The photograph below for Jones and Palmer provides an example of a the type of ghost sign found in Birmingham and documented as part of this project. 

Typically, these types of signs were hand-painted directly to the surface of the brickwork of a built structure.  This wasn't limited to just buildings and could include sign-writing on other brick surfaces such as bridges, viaducts and canals.


Ghost signs in Birmingham tend to  fall into three categories  as follows:


a) relating to a former product, business or service that was sold or available at the premise where the extant sign was recorded;


b) is visible on another built structure which was used for advertising placement (paid wall space on a domestic or commercial property) for a product, service or business no longer sold or available;


c) redundant information signs e.g. WW2. 


Sign regulation from the latter half of the eighteenth century in cities such as Birmingham decreed that no 'signpost shall hang across' the street and instead regulated the shift to sign production where signs are either fixed against a building or as shown here applied directly to the brickwork of a building. 

This nineteenth century illustration of Birmingham from a trade card shows the types of vernacular signs that once dominated the cities streets (courtesy of the Library of Birmingham Archives).  Ghost signs are reminiscent of this style of sign production.



These hand-painted signs were made by a sign-writer practicing the craft of sign-writing. Although the term is sometimes confused with the term sign-painter which is popular today in countries like America.

In Britain around the mid half of the nineteenth century the production of lettered signs surpasses the pictorial signs  and the shift in terminology occurs the sign-painter becomes the sign-writer; which is the term most people practicing the trade here toady use.  


The trade card above is an example of mid nineteenth century trade card used by a W. Smith who described himself as a sign-painter working on Lionel Street in Birmingham (Trade card, Library of Birmingham Archives). 

Extant ghost signs may be found on any part of the brickwork either on the interior or exterior of a building although very few internal signs are visible in Birmingham and the few that are tend to be in garage repair shops. 


More than one ghost sign may be found on a built structure and several layers of signs in one location are often found overlaid on top of each other commonly referred to as a palimpsest sign. 

Typically, the ghost signs that have survived in Birmingham are made up of painted lettering, occasionally they contain illustration(s).


The lettering was either applied directly to the wall or painted on top of a plain base coat depending on the design. Often signs were finished off with a painted border. 


These signs were never signed by the sign-writer who painted them so all works are anonymous this makes it difficult sometimes to determine a ghost signs provenance.