News / Edmonton

Edmonton's 'ghost signs' resurrected online with help of new website

Archive showcases local examples of hand-painted ads for old stores and services.

Luba Romanko created a website about ghost signs in and around Edmonton.

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

Luba Romanko created a website about ghost signs in and around Edmonton.

Edmonton’s historic ghost signs are getting new life online.

Luba Romanko is the Edmontonian behind a new online archive called Hunting for Ghost Signs, which shows off some of the best-known local examples of the hand-painted messages that once advertised stores and services in the city.

“It is our history. It is the history of the working class people in Edmonton. We need to keep this history with us,” she said.

Once the primary mode of advertising, all of the signs were painted by hand in the early- to mid-1900s by painters known as wall dogs. Tucked away down alleyways and on the sides of old buildings, they promote everything from cigars and coffee to hotels and sportswear.

But after decades of exposure to the sun, snow and rain most of the remaining examples are fading fast, hence the nickname.

Luba Romanko created a website about ghost signs in and around Edmonton

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

Luba Romanko created a website about ghost signs in and around Edmonton

Romanko started tracking down Edmonton’s remaining ghost signs last fall. She started by taking photos of them and then digging up whatever information she could get at local archives, and the buildings they’re painted on.  

For example, one of the signs features is on the Union Bank Building along Jasper Ave between 100 and 101 Street, and advertises the James Richardson and Sons Company, that shipped Canadian grain overseas starting in 1883.

Romanko starting sharing what she’d discovered with friends on Facebook, but soon realized there was wider interest in the project. Since she started the website more than 2,000 have visited.  

David Johnston, the city’s principal heritage planner, said the city wants to create its own inventory of the ghost signs.

“It’s something we want to undertake. We’ve never done one before,” he said, adding that the city tracks historic buildings, but not the signs on them.

Luba Romanko created a website about ghost signs in and around Edmonton

Kevin Tuong/For Metro

Luba Romanko created a website about ghost signs in and around Edmonton

Still, just listing the signs isn’t the same as protecting them—historic designation is a whole different process—so that’s still something the city would have to think about, he added.

In the meantime, Romanko plans to keep building her website because, “it’s not just buildings,” she said.

“It’s history and we need to be proud of it.”

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