Last November, I met local artist Shawn Fitzwater as he restored of one Homewood’s “Ghost Signs”. Since then, I’ve noticed ghost signs every time I ventured downtown. So, on a lazy Sunday I decided to wander Birmingham in search of as many ghost signs as I could find.
But First—What are Ghost Signs?
A ghost sign is a relic of a time long past, when hand-painted advertisements adorned brick buildings rather than billboards on the side of the interstate. Ghost Signs were most prominent from the 1890s to the 1960s, and many are still visible today. Most ghost signs were painted with oil-based house paints containing lead, which helps them stand the test of time—just don’t lick ’em.
Birmingham has a number of ghost signs scattered throughout the city, some hidden away from the casual eye in seldom-traveled alleys. If you have the time, take a stroll through Birmingham and see how many you can find!
1. Slaton, McGlathery Wagons & Buggies
Address: 2121-2129 Morris Avenue, Birmingham AL
The “Wagons [and] Buggies” sign might be near too faded to read, but cut it some slack—it’s been there since 1886. The building was constructed as a warehouse for Slaton, McGlathery & Burwell, a company that dealt in, “wagons, buggies, carts, spring wagons, agricultural implements and commercial fertilizers.”
2. Chas. A. Jones Flour & Grain Co.
Address: 2201 Morris Ave, Birmingham, AL 35203
This slanted building is the former home to the Chas. A. Jones Flour & Grain Co., which—you guessed it—specialized in flour and grain. According to BhamWiki, the building was there since at least 1896, when it was home to a “Moore & Hutton”. Now, the building is home to the Hollis, Wright, Clay & Vail Personal Injury Law firm.
3. Harris Transfer and Warehouse Company
Address: 610–612 22nd Street, Birmingham AL 35222
In 1880, Birmingham local George C. Harris founded the Harris Transfer Company—starting with just one horse and wagon. By 1916, the company had outgrown its original location on 20th Street North, so Harris constructed a four-story warehouse on 22nd Street. He added an additional five-story building next door in 1923, and a third warehouse by the railroad in the 1930s.
By the 1990s, the Harris Transfer and Warehouse Company filed for bankruptcy. The ground floor of the warehouse was remodeled to fit The Fish Market Restaurant.
4. Ballard’s Insurance Feeds and Obelisk Flour
Address: 2405 1st Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35233
I had to do some digging to find out what these ghost signs were—it turns out, they are advertisements for “Ballard’s Insurance Feeds and Obelisk Flour.” According to the Society of Architectural Historians, Ballard and Ballard was formed in Louisville, Kentucky in 1880 and had advertisements painted on the sides of buildings “from Georgia to Maine.”
5. Pepsi Cola
- Addresses: 109 21st Street South, Birmingham AL 35222
This ghost sign shouldn’t require much explanation, but you might miss it if you aren’t paying attention. This faded Pepsi Cola sign is located on the side of the 21st Street Studios building on 21st Street South. The building was originally home to the George F. Wheelock Co., which operated out of the building as early as 1888.
George was the nephew of Harry Wheelock, one half of the prominent Birmingham architecture firm Wheelock & Wheelock and the founder of The Rotary Club of Birmingham. The firm designed many of Birmingham’s most noteworthy buildings, including the Church of the Advent (1893), the Steiner Building (1890), the Frank Nelson Building (1903), and the 2nd Jefferson County Courthouse (1889).
Address: 2329 2nd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203
This second, much less faded Pepsi Cola sign on the side of Charm on 2nd hearkens back to an era when you could see a movie or grab a Pepsi for just a nickel. This building, originally known as the Blackwood-Bently Building, was constructed around 1910.
6. Motlow Distilling Company
Address: 2331 2nd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203
In 1904, two nephews of the Jack Daniel of Jack Daniel’s Distillery opened their very own distillery right here in Birmingham. The nephews, Lemuel and Frank “Spoon” Motlow, opened Motlow Distilling Company on the corner of 12th Street and Avenue B.
Although they had to deal with Jefferson County’s own prohibition laws from 1908 to 1911, they reopened as the Jack Daniel Distilling Company that year. In fact, they produced the famous No. 7 Lincoln County Whisky while the original Jack Daniel’s dealt with Tennessee’s prohibition. However, the Birmingham distillery had to shut down due to nationwide prohibition in 1918.
7. Yeilding’s Department Store
Address: 2129 2nd Avenue North, Birmingham AL 35222
Establish in 1876, Yeilding’s was Birmingham’s very first department store. In 1911, Yeilding’s moved to their third location on the corner of 2nd Avenue North and 22nd Street North. The three-story building had merchandise on the first and third floors, while the second floor was used as a boarding house. In 1955, the Yeilding’s completely remodeled their downtown location. The ground floor featured fashion accessories, mens and boys’ wear, shoes and fine foods, while the “Fashion Floor” featured women’s sportswear, girls’ clothes and baby’s clothes. Meanwhile, a “Home Floor” had furniture, houseware, linens and appliances, and the lower level had work clothing and uniforms.