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Signs of the Times: Ghost Signs in Winnipeg’s Exchange District

Portage and Main 1921.
Ghost signs are pieces of hand-painted, outdoor promotional art preserved on the sides of buildings. They were prevalent from the 1890s through to the 1960s, but as outdoor advertising mediums evolved, painted signs became a less popular way of promoting products and services. Over the years, they’ve been replaced by billboards, vinyl banners and store-front signage.
Portage and Main 1962.

Generation after generation though, the original signs remain. This is due to the paint and the substrate. Much like sponges, bricks are extremely porous. When they come into contact with a liquid, they quickly absorb it. That liquid, in this case, was lead- and oil-based paint. This meant the signs would remain for decades without having to reapply more coats.

When the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute opened in the former Royal Bank Building, Red River College tried to remove a small section of paint in the top right-hand corner without much success.

But let’s get started at the beginning. Why are they here?

When Manitoba joined the Confederation in 1870, there were 12,000 citizens who called the newly formed province home. By 1911, that number had swelled to 450,000 and Winnipeg, its capital, became the third largest city in the country. As the population grew, so did the need for goods and services. Industrialists from across North America swarmed to the burgeoning city to set up shop. The largest built towering buildings in the Warehouse District to sell their wares.

This is when the East side of the Exchange was formed. In 1890, a line connecting the Northern Pacific and Manitoba railways was constructed at, what is now, The Forks. The line followed Waterfront drive to the Canadian Pacific Railway on Higgins Avenue.

In 1895, two spur lines were successfully negotiated off of the main transfer railway. One, between Bannatyne and Market, and the other between Market and James. These tracks were able to pull up behind the backs of giant warehouses, who would store goods for shipment across Western Canada.

If you walk along John Hirsch Place and Elgin Avenue, you can still see the loading dock numbers on the backs of the buildings.

James Ashdown started construction of his warehouse as soon as the last rail tie was laid. Know as Winnipeg’s merchant prince, Ashdown built his hardware business from scratch from his store on the corner of Bannatyne and Main. The warehouse would allow him to expand his business and connect his building supplies with rail stops throughout the West.

In what was one of advertisings first promotional stunts, in 1900, Ashdown painted 40 cars with “Hardware from J.H. Ashdown” on their sides. The line travelled across the prairies and Ashdown bragged to the media his was the only company in Canada where the railway pulled up to his back door.

J.H. Ashdown Hardware Company Limited.
On the West side of Main, smaller-scale businesses took shape. Unlike the storage warehouses on the East, the west focused on wholesale goods – both bulk and retail.

This sign is from clothing retailer White and Mannahan. They opened their Main Street store in 1898 and operated out of the location until the building was sold and demolished in 1921. Even though it’s over a century old, the red colour still comes through.

As the Warehouse District expanded, so did the advertising techniques used in reaching out to the public. Businesses moved away from simply writing their name on a wall to creating brands around them.

By the 1930s, a company could even be expressed with a logo. When Canadian General Electric built 265 Notre Dame in 1930 they featured theirs on the back of the building.

The original ghost sign below is from the H.J. Heinz Company. It was painted in the 1920s and features the classic “57 Varieties” slogan. Over top is a Pepsi logo from the late 70s. The second Pepsi sign was actually painted a decade later and made to look like a 1940s bottle.

Some national advertisers went as far as to commission local sign painters to illustrate full product shots on the sides of buildings.

Essex Packers was founded in Hamilton, Ontario in 1925. At the time of painting in the 1950s, the company was the third largest canned ham manufacturer in North America.

This sign was painted at the same time as Essex Packers. Paint and chemical supply firm Robinson and Webber was founded in 1919. They represent brands like Goldex and Glashine and still exist today under the name RW Packaging.

Finally, The Scott-Bathgate Company. They were founded in 1903 as confectionary wholesaler. With the introduction of the Nutty Club brand name and its Can-D-Man mascot in the 1930s, the company grew to be one of Canada’s largest popcorn, salted nuts and packaged candy distributors. While they still own three buildings on the east of Main Street, the signs aren’t original. They’ve been repainted several times over from their original design.

So walk the streets and look up. There are a lot to choose from. Over 125 ghost signs line the rooftops of the Exchange. A century after they first went up and each one still has a story they’re trying to sell.

About the Author

Matt Cohen is a marketer and ad-history enthusiast. He’s also on the board of the Advertising Association of Winnipeg (adwinnipeg). In the fall of 2015, they’ll be launching, a digital archive of ghost signs in the Exchange. Follow or visit to learn more. 
Web: Social: @adwinnipeg

Article by and images courtesy of Matt Cohen, marketer, ad-history enthusiast, and board member of the Advertising Association of Winnipeg.

Edited by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.
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