Like most lifelong Baltimoreans, LaShelle Bynum was aware of the fading painted signs emblazoned on local buildings that once advertised everything from hair tonic to department stores. But it wasn’t until 2003, when the amateur photographer saw a sign painted on a brick wall advertising Lenny’s House of Natural, that she decided to pick up her camera and start photographing them. “I knew that back in the day that’s where Oprah got her hair done,” says the 49-year-old mother of two. “It was the nostalgia of the sign and then finding out the history behind the shop. I thought it was fascinating.”
Once she got started, Bynum couldn’t stop hunting for the old signs, which are known as ghost signs because they advertise long-gone businesses and because white is often the only color remaining on a sign (white lead paint deteriorates slower than color paints). Over the period of five years, Bynum amassed a portfolio of more than 125 images. An exhibit of her work— accompanied by her research into the history of the signs— debuted at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in 2007.
According to Bynum, five main companies in town— Morton, Park, Globe, Prichett and Chevery— were responsible for the majority of the work, which dates back to the 1930s. The sign painters, or “wall dogs” as they were called, were skilled artists who worked from scaled drawings, making sure the lettering was level even if the wall wasn’t. Bynum says that some would make a huge paper pattern of the design first, and then perforate the lines, leaving a series of holes. They would then fasten the pattern to the wall and pat the outline with a cotton bag filled with chalk or powdered charcoal, called a “pounce bag.” The result was a dotted line that painters could use to connect the dots. It only took a few short hours for the paint— mixed with linseed oil, varnish and sometimes gasoline— to dry, but the advertisements have lived on, outlasting the artists as well as most of the advertisers.
Bynum says she’s still discovering and photographing signs in different parts of the city and hopes to record many more before they fade completely or before more Baltimore buildings are razed. “Every time I look at them I smile,” she says. “It’s pure nostalgia. They make you think back to a time when life was so simple.”