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The Ghost Signs of Portland, Maine

This is not a spooky subject. To prove it, here’s a ghost sign, a recent example, that is fun!  It’s the old Brian Boru sign on Center Street, closed 2018.

graffiti on a brick building

Ghost signs are painted commercial signs of businesses that are lost and gone, usually much older than my first example. At the turn of the century, before TV and radio, it is hard to overstate the importance of the humble sign painter. It’s a big business and buildings are the commercial painter’s canvas. In any sizable America city, you’re going to find an army of workers armed with paintbrushes, ready to paint your advertising sign on the side of your building. Maybe they’ll paint somebody’s else ad too, a side hustle for you, the owner of a building. These skilled painters call themselves “wall dogs, ” and from the 1850s to 1930s, there are a lot of “wall dogs” in Portland, Maine whose work points to our rich industrial and maritime history.

Here’s a prominent sign on an 1860 warehouse advertising the E. Swasey Company, Pottery, Glass, and Crockery.

a large tall tower with a clock on the side of a building

In the 1800’s Portland is trading heavily in molasses, sugar, and rum. Hey, you have to put that stuff in something.

On the Union Street side of another 1880’s warehouse which now houses the famous pub Three Dollar Dewey’s, you’ll find two pillars that advertise poultry, butter, and eggs….

a close up of a brick building

and lamb…and whatever that second thing used to say.

a close up of a brick building

There was an old grocery store/distributor in this building, one of many in Portland, Maine, a major distribution point in the 1850s for fresh fruits, meats and vegetables coming in from points west, headed south and overseas to Europe. In the age of sail, Portland, because of its geographic location, and trade winds, enjoyed a nearly two day advantage over other ports in the US in exporting to Europe. We were kind of the Uber Eats or the Grubhub of the day.

Here’s another long gone grocery distributor/store, Zeitman’s Grocery on Boothby Square (Fore Street).

a store front at day

Until recently, the yellow lettering (fading fast) over the Dock Fore bar was clearly visible. You have to squint now. Zeitman’s was one of the many Jewish owned businesses in this part of town. This simple faded sign attests to our important role during the great age of immigration to America. Portland hit over its weight. A little island in the middle of Portland harbor, House Island, was known popularly as “Little Ellis Island.” We were considered an ideal landing point for immigrants because of our excellent transportation links (rail and ships).  That immigration came in droves to Portland from all over the world, including Eastern Europe.

Here’s the prominent W.L. Blake sign outside Standard Baking Co. on Commercial Street painted in 1924.

a large brick building

W.L. Blake made heavy industrial equipment, mill equipment, and plumbing fittings. In one paragraph, we’ve moved in Portland’s history from groceries to the machines that squash groceries to make flour and juice.

Consider the massive C.H. Robinson sign in back of the historic Mariners Church on Fore Street. It speaks loudly of Portland’s, and the State of Maine’s rich history in the paper industry of America.

a car parked on a city street

There’s lots more ghost signs out there waiting to be discovered in Portland, Maine. Our city is rife with them. Taken together they form a complex and fascinating jigsaw puzzle that yields a rich commercial history of the city. Some of them are big and beautiful – master works of advertising, beautiful works of art – and some are faded and almost forgotten. Some of them contain Portland’s history writ large. Some are self-explanatory. And others might be mysteries or just random numbers. You decide.

a close up of a brick wall

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Written by Ross – Ross grew up in Nova Scotia, Canada, fell in love with a woman from Boston, and has been in Maine raising his family for over 20 years now. Ross has been a tour for 3 and half years. He claims to learn something every tour and goes out in every kind of weather, and is always looking for new angles on historic subjects.

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