Falling ‘ghost ads’ from the twin towns are preserved in a new book

If you have ever spent your time looking at some of the old commercial buildings in Minneapolis or St. Paul, you may have noticed a message calling to you from the past.

There on the side of a building is the faded remnant of an ad painted directly on the bricks, a faint voice from long ago urging you to drink a brand of pop or a beer that no longer exists, or to patronize a hardware store or grocery store that has long since stalled.

Popular and ubiquitous from the second half of the 19th century until the first half of the 20th, many of these old billboard-sized commercials are being wiped out by time and weather, the devastating bullet and new construction.

But thanks to photographer and history lover Jay Grammond, the “ghost ads” from the twin cities are preserved in a new book.

“Fading Ads of the Twin Cities” is a product of a mid-life career change of Grammond, who was looking for a pandemic project.

Grammond, 55, had worked for nearly 20 years in community education and had been the adult enrichment coordinator for Elk River School District. In 2019, he decided to turn his many years of hobby and side business as a photographer into a full-time profession.

COVID-19 derailed his plans to sell landscapes to hospitals and senior housing, but he discovered a new opportunity as he searched for books on his interest in ghost ads.

He came across a series of picture books on ghost ads published by History Press in Charleston, SC, each dedicated to a different city: “Fading Ads of Philadelphia,” “Fading Ads of Detroit,” “Fading Ads of St. Louis.” But there were no books on the twin cities.

Grammond sent a pitch to History Press, convincing the publisher that he should be the guy to make one.

By the summer of 2020, he had signed a book deal and started taking regular walks from his home near Princeton, Minn., To the warehouse districts and downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Louis. Paul, where he searched and photographed old brick buildings where ghost ads could still be seen.

Tracing the history of the city

Grammond was helped by a blog, “Ghost Signs of Minneapolis,” which featured ghost signs posted by a person named Adam Miller between 2011 and 2017. There was also a Google map of more than 100 ghost signs in the twin cities. And suggestions on social media put him on the trail of other ghost characters.

Sometimes, while searching for a sign, he discovered another unknown to him and hid in plain sight. Most of his ghost character hunting in the historic neighborhoods of the twin cities took place during the height of the pandemic.

“There were times when there were almost no others on the street and many of the storefronts were blocked,” he wrote in the book.

Grammond photographed about 200 ghost characters, 150 of which entered his book. He writes that the signs are the visual remnants of the types of businesses that were the key to the region’s commercial growth.

Signs advertising plows and tractors, seed companies and flour, for example, are the result of the state’s wheat production.

As the Twin Cities became a job and distribution center and a railroad hub, billboards began to appear.

Grammond’s photographs also capture advertisements proclaiming former hotels and DIY stores, beers, bicycles, butchers, banks and blacksmiths, shoes, cars, clothing, appliances, tobacco, filmmakers and violins. You can also find the writing on the wall from the Northwestern Casket Company and the Land-O-Nod mattress company in the book.

The ghost ads that are still visible in the twin towns range from the horse and buggy era, offering harnesses and carriages, to the early computer age, with a painted wall promoting the now broken Control Data Corp.

“To me, they tell a story about the city’s past,” Grammond said.

Announcing our collective past

Set up before the arrival of billboard-clad interstate highways, the messages were painted on brick walls, sometimes covering the entire width of a building, intended to catch the eyes of people traveling through the city center on foot or in a wagon or trolley. .

Grammond said we can still see them because “brick building signs tend to withstand the ravages of time, weather, and things like fire and demolition better than wooden building signs.”

Although their original purpose was strictly commercial, Grammond finds a kind of beauty today in the hand-painted signs that sometimes include a kind of signature from the sign company.

“The characters entice us to remember a time from our collective past; they are basically an art exhibit that shows the history of business, industry, lifestyle and lifestyle in Minnesota,” he writes.

Grammond said he would like to make a follow-up book documenting ghost ads outside the twin towns of smaller, historic towns in the state like Rochester, St. Cloud and Duluth.

Some of the ghost commercials that Grammond encountered in the twin cities were so badly degraded or covered in graffiti that they are unreadable. You can see the outline of a sign, but you can not see what they were advertising for.

He included pictures of some of these mysterious characters in his book.

“It’s worth including some of these to record what can be seen out there, and to provide examples for a future researcher or avid fan of fading-ad,” he wrote.

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