The ghost signs of Australia’s advertising past are more than faded memories

Faded signs are the ghosts of advertisers’ past – once painstakingly hand-painted on billboards or commercial walls, then neglected and ignored for decades, they have become markers of our cultural history.

These abandoned advertisements are known as “ghost boards” and attract a certain type of ghost hunter.

Photographer Brady Michaels and his partner and co-author Dale Campisi traveled Australia in an old minivan to photograph and catalog the elusive ghosts.

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

“Ghost panels usually refer to hand painted panels. My definition is a bit broader, as I will look at any old and faded panel.”

Ghost sign of Dr Morse’s Indian Roots Pills in Morpeth, near Maitland in New South Wales.(Provided: Brady Michaels)

Michaels and Campisi traveled approximately 40,000 kilometers to produce their book, Signs of Australia.

They are part of a serious and growing community of sign hunters.

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

“Not all of them are photographers, but I approach the subject from a more ‘arty’, photographic point of view.”

Red dingo painting on the side of a flour mill.
The famous Dingo Flour sign in Fremantle, Western Australia was originally painted in 1940. (Provided: Brady Michaels )

Photography is only part of the joy of being a “ghost hunter”. Much of the joy also comes from the hunt itself.

“It’s definitely a scavenger hunt, not knowing what you’re going to find. It’s kind of hit or miss,” Michaels said.

Large sign at the entrance to Starlight drive in
What’s new at Watson? The Starlight Drive-In movie sign in Watson, ACT.(Provided: Brady Michaels)

Michaels said mining towns offer rich choices as businesses there navigate boom and bust cycles.

Towns such as Broken Hill, Coober Pedy, Charters Towers, Clunes and Ballarat are happy hunting grounds for ghost sign hunters.

“Different towns have different relationships with their old signs. Some towns painted on them with the idea that the old signs suggested towns that hadn’t changed over time,” Michaels said.

“Others were untouched and are still there. But there are also old towns that recognize the appeal of these signs to draw people in.”

Faded signs advertising Ice Cream and Butter in Broken Hill.
Broken Hill Ice and Produce Company sign in Broken Hill, NSW. (Provided: Brady Michaels)

Author and researcher Amy Tsilemanis tracked down and documented many old signs in and around Ballarat for a heritage project in 2015.

“I was asked to create a digital journey for Ballarat Heritage Weekend and this led to the co-production of the Ballarat Revealed website,” said Dr Tsilemanis.

“This site is still available for people to explore as they walk around the city.

“The first trail was about buildings and we created a slider feature where you could see the site as it was in the past and what it looks like now.

“The following year I worked on a second track, with local historian and archivist Lauren Bourke, finding and photographing ghost signs around town and researching the stories behind them in local libraries and historical groups, Trove and Public Records Office Victoria.

“It’s always important when doing research like this to credit your sources, because it takes a lot of work to gather and preserve historical information.”

Painted cartoon bartender sign with Ballarat Bitter beer bottle.
Ballarat Bertie still peddles his bitter in Ballarat.(Provided: Brady Michaels)

Dr. Tsilemanis’ research has revealed signs and stories of dentists, dressmakers, brewers, grocers, hoteliers, and more.

“As a lover of vintage advertising, I’ve been drawn to photographers like Richards and Co and the vivid descriptions of their wares, or really lovely people like Jim and Marg Welsh’s dance studio,” said said Dr. Tsilemanis.

“Many of the townspeople will still fondly remember learning to dance there.

“There are also those who reveal stories of immigration and how people built homes and formed communities in Ballarat.”

Some ghost brands celebrate products that still exist. Others mark marks that have themselves become ghosts.

Holden is as iconic as any Australian brand. The logos and signs that still mark old dealerships have become tourist destinations for Holden owners with a penchant for photography.

Abandoned mechanical garage with faded Holden signs
It’s worth going to the old Holden Garage in Boort, Victoria.(Commons: Mattinbgn)

ABC Ballarat classic car correspondent John Emery said car enthusiasts enjoyed some of the old signs almost as much as their own old cars.

“There are no more new Holdens, so the signs don’t really announce anything now. But they are a visual reminder of this important history.

“It’s not just car brands. Golden Fleece used to have gas stations everywhere. Golden Fleece no longer exists as a brand, but many signs are still there.”

Some ghost signs maintain a presence even when they’ve completely disappeared or been painted over, Emery said.

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

“The old signs have been repainted, but this corner will always be known as Peters Corner.”

A faded old auto mechanics garage.
The ghostly remains of the Koroit Motor Garage in South West Victoria. (Provided: Brady Michaels)