CAMDEN By BRADLY GILL
As my wife and I drove down the streets of Stephens, something caught my eye. A faded Coca Cola ad preserved on the side of a brick building. It’s color was still closer to Coke’s trademark vivid red than the dull brown it will one day become.
It’s what is referred to as a “ghost sign”, a remnant of a time long before pop up ads or viral marketing. From the late 19th century to the early 20th, the side of buildings once hocked everything from cigars to Grapette. In fact Star City still boasts a prominent Grapette ad instructing onlookers to “Enjoy Grapette Soda” fairly close to the city’s downtown area. Although I’ve never seen it on person, highway seven in Smackover. Even Camden has at least a few ghost signs located on the sides of What’s Cookin’ and I drive by a faded sign for the Dixie Barber shop every morning on my way to work as well as a faded Coca Cola sign on Adams. Hot Springs also has more than a few well preserved signs such as and an ad for Tom Moore Cigars (only 10 cents) and it was probably my childhood trips to Bath house road that sparked my life long interest in Art Deco architecture and vintage ads.
The ads were all hand painted, by men affectionately known as “wall dogs.”
I have a fondness for the old and abandoned. It’s not nostalgia, I grew up in the 80’s and my ads were handed to me in the form on 30 minute cartoons meant to sell me and countless other kids across the nation toys. In an age when attention spans are dwindling and we’re inundated with more ads than we can even process, it’s nice to think of a time when a static image adorned a wall like a silent sentinel and waited for people to soak it in.
I guess I bring all this up, in addition to talking about my new found obsession, to raise a point about awareness. Think really hard, when was the last time you passed a ghost sign, what did it advertise? How many towns have you walked around and never really looked at these spectral wonders of a by gone era?
In my research, I’ve found a site www.drkenjones.com that is a virtual treasure trove of these signs. What struck me the most is how homogeneous they all seemed. Every building could be from the same town and time period. Just in case you were wondering, Arkansas has more than a few of these signs and several are within driving distance. Just head downtown to any central district and wander. You’re bound to run into one.
Until that day in Stephens, I don’t think I really paid enough attention to ghost signs. Sadly, most of America’s ghost ads are irreparable or become destroyed in the name of urban renewal. There’s a restoration debate about whether to restore the ads or let them age gracefully. I think they should fade away, all things are impermanent, why should a U-Need-A biscuit ad be any different.