Ghost marks on Australia’s advertising past are more than faint memories

Faded banners are the ghosts of advertisers of the past – once carefully painted onto billboards or business walls, then shrugged and ignored for decades, they became signs of our cultural history.

These abandoned ads are known as “ghost signals” and they attract a certain type of ghost hunter.

Photographer Brady Michaels and partner and co-author Del Campese toured Australia in an old pickup truck to capture and catalog elusive ghosts.

“We call them ghost tags because they are ghosts of the past,” Michaels said.

Ghost signs generally refer to hand drawn signs. My definition is a little broader, because I would look at any faded old sign.

Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills ghost sign in Morbeth, near Maitland in New South Wales.(Supplied: Brady Michaels)

Mr. Michaels and Mr. Campisi have traveled about 40,000 kilometers on their way to the production of their book, Signals of Australia.

They are part of a serious and growing community of signal hunting.

“Its mission in life is to document and share these signs,” said Mr. Michaels.

“They’re not all photographers, but I approach them from a more ‘artistic’ pictorial point of view.”

Draw a red dingo on the side of the flour mill.
The iconic Dingo Flour sign in Fremantle, Western Australia, was originally painted in 1940. (Supplied: Brady Michaels )

The photo is only part of the joy of being a “ghost hunter”. Much joy also comes from fishing itself.

“It’s definitely a treasure hunt, you don’t know what you’re going to find,” Michaels said. “It’s a little tricky.”

Large sign at the entrance to the Starlight engine in
What’s going on in Watson? Starlight Drive-In movie recording in Watson, ACT.(Supplied: Brady Michaels)

Michaels said mining towns offer rich earnings as companies go through boom and bust.

Cities like Broken Hill, Coober Pedy, Charters Towers, Clunes, and Ballarat are happy hunting grounds for ghost tag hunters.

“Different cities have different relationships to the old signs,” Michaels said. “Some towns are painted over them with the intention that the old signs refer to towns that haven’t changed with time.”

“Others have not been affected and are still there. But there are also old towns that realize the allure of these signs to attract people to them.”

Faded signs advertise ice cream and butter at Broken Hill.
Broken Hill Ice and Produce Company recording in Broken Hill, New South Wales. (Supplied: Brady Michaels)

Writer and researcher Amy Tsilimanis tracked down and documented many ancient signage in and around Ballarat for a heritage project in 2015.

“I was asked to create a digital track for Ballarat Heritage Weekend, and this resulted in my co-producing Ballarat Revealed,” said Dr. Tsilimanis.

“This site is still available for people to explore while they are roaming around the city.

“The first track was about buildings and we created a slider function where you can see the location as it was in the past and how it looks now.

The following year, I worked on a second track, with local historian and archivist Lauren Burke, to find and photograph ghost signs around town and research the stories behind them through local libraries and historical collections, the Trove, and the Victorian Public Records Office.

“It is always important when doing research like this that you attribute your sources because a lot of work goes into compiling and preserving historical information.”

Drawn sign of cartoon barman with a bottle of Ballarat Bitter beer.
Ballarat Bertie still publishes once in Ballarat.(Supplied: Brady Michaels)

Dr. Tselmanis’ research has revealed the signs and stories of dentists, tailors, breweries, grocers, hoteliers, and more.

“As a lover of vintage ads, I was drawn to Richards & Co. photographers and the vivid descriptions of their merchandise, or really cute ones like Jim and Marge Welch’s dance studio,” Tsilimanis said.

“Many people around town still fondly remember learning to dance there.

“There are also stories that reveal stories of migration and how people built homes and formed communities in Ballarat.”

Some ghost brands celebrate products that are still around. Others mark brands that have become ghosts.

Holden is as iconic as any Australian brand. The logos and banners that still distinguish the former dealerships have become destinations for Holden owners who have a penchant for photography.

Abandoned mechanic garage with faded Holden signs
It’s well worth the drive to Holden’s former garage in Port, Victoria.(Commons: Mattinbgn)

Car enthusiasts value some vintage cues as much as their vintage cars, said John Emery, ABC Ballarat Classic Car Correspondent.

“There aren’t new Holdens anymore, so the signs don’t advertise anything now. But it’s a visual reminder of this important date.”

“It’s not just car brands. Golden Fleece had service stations all over the place. Golden Fleece no longer exists as a brand but many of the signs still exist.”

Mr. Emery said that some ghost marks maintain their presence even when they are completely faded or tinted.

“There used to be a Peters Ice Cream Banner at Sandown Raceway and that corner became known as Peters Corner,” he said.

“The old signs are painted, but this corner will always be known as Peters Corner.”

Former vanishing auto mechanic garage.
The ghostly remains of the Corwett parking garage in southwest Victoria. (Supplied: Brady Michaels)

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