Winnipeg’s ghost signs are faded tributes to products of yesteryear and long-gone businesses

For the past decade, Matt Cohen, an advertising professional from Winnipeg, has searched the Stock Exchange District for ghosts.

No, not that kind of ghost.

Matt Cohen with a box of ham and lemon polish, products advertised on the side of buildings near Bannatyne and Main. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

The ghosts that Cohen has been chasing are old advertisements, splashed on the exterior walls of some of the city’s oldest buildings, dating back to the turn of the 20th century. What captivated Cohen about these poltergeists was that they introduced the geist of bygone zeits, telling hundreds of unique stories about the businesses that once filled the city’s most historic business district.

“The nature of advertising is that it’s fleeting,” says Cohen, who worked with the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation to publish an upcoming walking tour guide to the city’s ghost signs. “When they painted these signs, they didn’t want them to be there for 200 years.”

Now the signs serve as a reminder of what once was.

The obsession with ghosts began for Cohen while he was on the board of directors of the local advertising association, which was approaching a milestone anniversary. He thought it would be interesting to contact the person who documented the ghost signs in the city. But there wasn’t, so he became that person.

“And the only way to find them is to walk the streets and alleys,” he said. And then you have to look up.

A ghost sign (a hand painted outdoor advertisement) promoting canned ham on the side of 185 Bannatyne Avenue (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

A ghost sign (a hand painted outdoor advertisement) promoting canned ham on the side of 185 Bannatyne Avenue (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

When he looked up, Cohen saw ads for Chatfield Distributors Ltd. (Antiquities of China, “The Orient”), Wilder’s Stomach Powder (“Quick and Lasting Relief”) and SX Ham (“Hickory Smoked”). He saw dozens of paintings of products that were no longer made by companies that no longer existed.

However, he didn’t just take pictures: Cohen took it upon himself to research the companies, products and names associated with them: JH Ashdown, who came to Winnipeg from Minnesota as a young man with an ox cart before building a trading empire. , won him over, as did DW and Fred Stobart of Stobart, Sons and Company, workwear manufacturers who inscribed the last name on the side of the building they constructed in 1903 at 281 McDermot Ave.

The companies on the walls probably each employed hundreds of Winnipeg residents, and many are said to have sold or manufactured hundreds of thousands or millions of products in their lifetime. Some may only have been around for a few years, their signs survive businesses 20 times.

Cohen regularly contacts people who remember the companies and products pictured on the walls. He even hooked up with a man in the ’90s who painted the sign for Milady Chocolates on the side of 165 McDermot Ave., speaking to him just months before the man died.

Matt Cohen holds a box of Wilder's stomach powder, a long-missing product advertised in a

Matt Cohen holds a box of Wilder’s stomach powder, a long-missing product advertised in a “ghost sign” on the side of a building in the Exchange District. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

These advertisements and their long lifespan are a radical departure from modern advertising campaigns. Beginning in the 1960s, as consumerism evolved and competition increased, it became more economically feasible for advertisers to invest in cheaper and faster methods, such as billboards or vinyl banners. . Around the same time, expensive advertising materials such as porcelain or glass were replaced by cheaper materials such as plastic.

Nowadays, advertisements, especially digital advertisements, can be designed to be used for a single day, a single week, or a single promotion. With shorter ad cycles, these ads will have the chance to be used for a year, not to mention 100.

And now, if a business leaves or closes, all reference to it is usually removed. You wouldn’t know what there used to be unless you saw it for yourself. Everything is temporary, which is why the eerie permanence of the fading ghost signs is so special to Cohen.

Other cities might have a greater supply of ghost signs, Cohen says, but in the Exchange District, whose buildings are protected by heritage designations, there is one of the highest concentrations of wall advertising in Canada.

“You can stand in a corner and see eight or nine if you just pivot,” Cohen says. (Other areas also have ghost panels, but the buildings they are on are normally not protected, so many have been destroyed or repainted.)

Matt Cohen contributed to a walking tour of the City's Ghost Signs.  (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

Matt Cohen contributed to a walking tour of the City’s Ghost Signs. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

Cohen also began collecting items advertised on the walls, including a box of SX Ham he purchased on Etsy. He has a box of Wilder’s stomach powder and a rubber tire repair kit from Ashdown & Co.

When he helped his grandmother move out of her home a few years ago and found window cleaner at Robertson & Webber (posted at 185 Bannatyne Ave.), he “almost lost (his) spirit”.

Soon the book – available for pre-order online – will inspire others to come out and wander the Stock Exchange District in search of ghosts.

As for Cohen, he will continue to look for signs. “And I’m looking for another box of ham, but I haven’t found it yet.”

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