This story first appeared in the October issue of the PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door each month? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
Advertisements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had the same goal as now: Put the product in front of the consumer and get them to buy it. Before the age of modern electronics, an effective way to do that was to paint signs on the sides of buildings, so potential customers saw the advertisement as they walked by. Over a hundred years later, some of those ads still exist. These “ghost signs” offer a window into how companies interacted with consumers at the time.
Businesses selling anything from snacks to soda to office equipment looked for places to put ads along the most traveled areas. Exposed wall space on a three- or four-story building was an advertising opportunity.
Painting wall signs could be dangerous, high-rise work. The men who painted the ads became known as “wall dogs.” The term also was used to describe the ads themselves when they promoted companies or products other than the ones housed in the buildings on which they were painted — a notion that was considered tacky at the time.
Photo by Anthony John Coletti
One company that took the notion of wall signs quite seriously was the National Biscuit Company. In 1899, NBC, as the company was known then, created a soda cracker they believed was better than what was on the market. NBC’s president Adolphus Green knew the cracker had a lot of potential, but was told, “You need a name.” The beginning of that sentence was then turned into a single word, “uneeda.”
Soda crackers were referred to as “biscuits” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Uneeda Biscuit” worked for Green. In 1899, NBC’s advertising campaign was one of the largest in the country.
There are still several “Uneeda Biscuit” ads visible on walls around New Orleans. The most well-known ad is on the house at 730 Dumaine St., just off the corner of Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. If you look at the location on Google Maps, it’s listed as the “Biscuit Palace.”
There are two other “Uneeda Biscuit” ads of note in New Orleans. There is a second ad in the Vieux Carré, at 438 Dauphine St., which is now an apartment building. The third is in the Warehouse District, at 901 Tchoupitoulas St. That ad was painted in the 1910s. In the 1930s, Dixie Mills (the machine tools company who owned the building) decided to paint a sign with the company’s name over it.
Photo by Liz Jurey
In 1917, Ira Harkey and Virgil Browne founded the National Fruit Flavor Company. They operated out of two locations in what is now the New Orleans Warehouse District. They promoted the company’s most popular soda, Orange Squeeze, with signs on the fronts of both buildings. The location at 419 Girod St. is now condominiums and the offices of Landis Construction, while 1039 Constance St. is now an apartment building. National Fruit Flavor Company is still around. Adam Gambel bought the company in 1961, and it now operates out of the Elmwood Industrial Park.
One of the oldest ghost signs of note in New Orleans is located at 814 Canal St. It’s an advertisement painted around 1890 for A. Shwartz and Sons Dry Goods, which was located in the 700 block of Canal Street in the Touro Buildings. Abraham Shwartz started the business in the 1850s. The store closed after a fire in February 1892 burned almost every business in the Touro Buildings.
Shwartz likely placed the ad one block up from his store to encourage shoppers to walk a little farther down Canal Street. Shwartz passed away later in 1892, but his youngest son, Simon, kept the family’s retail legacy going by founding the Maison Blanche Department Store in 1897.
GINGER MINT JULEPS
Photo by Britt Reints
Isaac Edward Emerson, originally from North Carolina, was the inventor of Bromo-Selzer, a popular headache/hangover remedy. Emerson earned a degree from the University of North Carolina and owned a drugstore in Baltimore when he created Bromo-Selzer. He appreciated the power of advertising, which is how he made a fortune on Bromo-Selzer. In addition to his most popular product, Emerson created Ginger Mint Julep Syrup. He used wall ads to promote a number of the Emerson Drug Company’s products, and it made sense to advertise his syrups in the French Quarter. The Ginger Mint Julep ad can still be seen on the side of 311 Decatur St., next to the New Orleans Fire Department’s French Quarter station.
TUTT’S, NOT BUTTS!
Photo by Liz Jurey
The sign painted on the back wall of the Upper Pontalba building at 620 Decatur St. says “utt’s Liver Pills.” Admit it, you want it to be “Butt’s.” But it’s not.
If you step back from the ad, you’ll see that it’s painted right up against a window in the building. The design of the window is such that, from half a block away, it looks like a large capital “T” next to the sign. That’s because the ad is for “Dr. Tutt’s Liver Pills,” a turn-of-the-century laxative.
MADE LAST NIGHT
The factory for Jacob’s Candies was at 827 Carondelet St. The company used the side of the wall to promote its candies to not only pedestrians, but the hundreds of streetcar riders heading to and from Canal Street daily. The double entendre of “made last night” was a bit racy for the time.
PRC PRESERVES A GHOST
Photo by Liz Jurey
The home of the Preservation Resource Center, at 923 Tchoupitoulas St., has a ghost ad for furniture manufacturer Morris & Company.
BUILDING AS BILLBOARD
Economy Iron Works, at 635 S. Peters St., turned the entire Girod Street side of its building into a billboard over the years. Now, that wall is a collection of ghost wall dogs, most notably the Lil’ Debbie ad in the middle of the block. If you look at the wall closely, you’ll also see an ad for a stationary company and for Gulf Oil.
In July, the New Orleans City Council approved the demolition of four, one-story brick warehouses, including 635 S. Peters St. The council instructed the developers to salvage the brick and to incorporate portions of the historic buildings into the new development where possible.
CONTEMPORARY WALL ADVERTISING
The Dameron-Pierson Building, at 400 Camp St. in the Central Business District, is now part of the Queen and Crescent Hotel, a Marriott Autograph property. Dameron-Pierson had been a downtown fixture, providing office supplies to many businesses in the area. To help folks find the company, the business painted its name on the wall on the eastern side. The building next to Dameron-Pierson was lower, so the sign was visible from Poydras Street. That next-door neighbor was eventually demolished, and the corner of Camp and Poydras streets has been a parking lot for decades. That made the entire side of the Dameron-Pierson building a perfect location for a wall ad.
Today, the hotel has a huge ad for Zatarain’s painted on the side, and alas, the sign for Dameron-Pierson has all but been covered by it.
This is just a sample of the ghost signs in New Orleans. Let’s keep the conversation going. If you see a ghost sign, snap a picture and tag it @prcnola on Instagram; @prcno on Twitter or add it to the PRC’s Facebook page.