You’ve seen them in every rural town in Texas and across the country. Or you haven’t. But they’re there. They are old, faded, slowly disappearing advertising speaking to past generations of shoppers, promoting businesses long gone. Some call them “ghost signs.” Although in their hey-day with their bright colors they were meant to be seen, over time they were viewed simply as backdrops, or went unnoticed altogether. It was around the end of the 19th century, long before computers or even vinyl letters, thes signs were produced, meticulously, by hand. Sign painters, or “wall dogs,” as they were called, showed off their artistry, mixing bright colors into a base of leaded white. The name came about for two reasons, because they worked like dogs plus they would sometimes have to be tethered, or leashed, to the wall.
When these signs were at the height of popularity, sign-painting was a common job, but rural communities depended upon traveling artisans to paint their signs. At the time the signs were considered ordinary, the artists simply laborers, but they were the first to add a layer of artistry to otherwise dull landscapes. Within hours a building wall would be transformed into a lively illustration combined with a witty, entertaining message.
Ghost signs would advertise everything from candy to flour to cigars and everything in between. At times these messages served a duo purpose, not only to promote a product but as landmarks for pedestrians, providing directional signage before towns had traffic lights.
But not all “ghosts” are real, even when it comes to ghost signs. Take the Star Biscuit Co. sign in Smithville. We’re not sure there ever was a Star Biscuit Co. This sign magically appeared prior to the move, “Hope Floats,” which was filmed in Smithville in 1993. To us it looks eerily like the Star Tobacco sign in nearby Elgin, which is truly “old.” Something else they have in common is the faded word “Saloon” behind each.
On that note, there are plenty of saloon ghost signs in Texas. Bastrop, Elgin and Smithville, not to mention the rowdier McDade, all had saloons.