The autumn reminds me of the cycle of the seasons. It is a time of immense beauty, where the changing colors capture everyone’s attention, but the reminder of the cold winter months lingers. This, too, is the life of a sign. They catch the eye of those passing by until it fades and are eventually lost forever.
Over the course of a year many of the once-visible ghost signs around Philadelphia are covered or lost. Sometimes the reasons for this are easy to understand, like when a new business moves in and wants to place its own sign on top of an old one. Other times, owners paint over a sign to make the building appear more attractive to the real estate market. Signs were never meant to last forever. Those that are still around are only temporary windows into the past. Preserving and repainting old signs often prolongs the life of these relics, but even those efforts could be thwarted by a new building owner or the biggest threat of all: time.
Hidden City’s managing editor Michael Bixler wrote in his recent article, Lost Buildings of 2021, that “cities are indeed living organisms, and it is imperative to allow them to evolve, densify, and grow on their own accord.” Ghost signs are no different from the buildings they adorn. As the city changes, old signs will continue to be lost. This underscores the importance of documenting, researching, and sharing the history of old advertisements while they are still around.
This article features six ghost signs that were erased in 2022. This is not an exhaustive list of all of the signs that may have been lost or covered over this year. Also, while many of these signs were painted of covered over in 2022, that does not necessarily mean that they are lost forever. Many examples of older signs peeking through newer ones can be found all over the city. This is often attributed to the chemical makeup of older paints lasting longer than paint used today and instances of the original sign having a longer period to seep into porous surfaces such as brick or stone.
Ghost Sign: Litto’s Pastry
Location: 910-912 Christian Street
The Italian Market lost one of its few ghost signs this year. Litto’s Pastry was once a neighborhood fixture, and its sign was best seen from the parking lot of the Christopher Columbus Charter School next door when the trees lost their foliage. The sign was on the west facing wall and read “Litto’s PASTRY” in black letters. A mixture of white and green paint underneath and along the rest of the sign kept the observer guessing what else the original sign displayed.
Orazio Litto, a Sicilian immigrant, started the bakery in a shop down street in 1930. His eldest son, Joseph W. Litto, took over the business for many years until his son, Joseph Jr., took over in 1995. The family business made everything from cakes shaped like cradles for christenings to wedding cakes, ricotta rum cream cakes, sfogliatella, and even catered dinners. Joseph Sr. also claimed to have made cakes for Dwight Eisenhower after being drafted into the Army during World War II. The family lived in the apartment above the bakery.
Litto’s closed in 1998. The building became home to the well-known brunch restaurant Sabrina’s Cafe in 2001. Sabrina’s closed their Christian Street location in 2021. The building was put on the market to rent, and the owners repainted the west-facing wall. Grey paint now covers what was left of the Litto’s Pastry sign. Hopefully, as the newer paint fades, Litto’s history will one day be uncovered again.
Ghost Sign: Fenders and Used Bumpers
Location: 454-460 N. 12th Street
Work continued throughout 2021 and early 2022 at 454-460 N. 12th Street to repoint and repair the bricks of the building’s north facing wall. Scaffolding and a black tarp covered the project but when the construction materials were removed, it became instantly clear that any remnants of the ghost signs there were gone. Prior work in 2020 had already removed the ghost signs on the west facing wall, so the complete removal was not a surprise. To be fair, the signs were heavily faded and their connection to the building’s history was a bit unclear.
The north facing wall had vertical words between the windows that read “FENDERS|HO…|D..O.” Older images of the building on Google Street View show the west facing wall with the signs “BUMPERS & G…” above a garage door and the vertical “USED BUMPERS” near the main entrance. Another vertical sign with the lettering “FENDERS” was near the corner. There were additional vertical signs that were too faded to read.
While the building stands on a parcel rich with industrial history, including the manufacturing of wire staples, vehicle engines, and coconut graters, the name of the business responsible for the ghost signs remains unclear. The building may have been constructed around 1930, and the area around the property was known for vehicle parts manufacturing and garages. The age of the building, the old garage doors (now removed), and the ghost signs indicated that it was built as a vehicle repair shop and garage. Kam Kuo Trading Co. Inc. occupied the building between 2007 and 2017. It’s now home to Iron Works Fitness, although it appears the gym only rents the space from a Philadelphia-based company.
Ghost Sign: Resiman’s Pretzels
Location: 1950 E. Lehigh Avenue
An advertisement for the Reisman Pretzel Co. had slowly revealed itself since being covered by white paint around 2008. In early 2022, the advertisement was covered by white paint yet again. Reisman Pretzel Co., or J. Reisman and Sons, was founded by Jacob Reisman in 1917. Its primary location was at 5th and Locust Streets, but later moved to Pennsauken, NJ in 1960. Reisman’s son, Max, the youngest of six, continued the business and is credited with creating a peanut butter filled pretzel nugget. The company was sold in the 1990s, but it appears that it remained very influential in the Philadelphia pretzel market.
Reisman likely only used the wall space for its advertisement due to high visibility on Lehigh Avenue and had no other connection to the building. It is possible that the two, faded square images were painted pictures of pretzels, but it’s hard to say for sure. Real estate websites have the building listed as being built in 1900. An old photograph of the building on the website of the building’s current occupant, Philly’s Famous Italian Ice, is captioned “The Plant 1965” and shows a different, illegible sign. This indicates that the ghost sign was layers of signs. If the building’s history is any indication, the white paint will eventually fade again and reveal Reisman’s advertisement again.
Ghost Sign: Archer & Ellison, Restaurant Supply & China
Location: 17 N. 2nd Street
There is not much information available for the ghost sign above the storefront at 17-19 N. 2nd Street. The all-caps, yellow-lettered sign appears to read “19 ARCHER & ELLISON 19.” Another sign on the brick wall in the alleyway alongside the building shows the words “SUPPLY” and “CHINA,” likely referencing a restaurant supply company. This area of Old City and N. 2nd Street is historically known for restaurant supply sales. The two signs are different styles, indicating that they are not from the same former occupant of the building.
The ARCHER & ELLISON sign had previously been painted over, but really began to make itself known after a restoration of the building’s facade in 2015. In recent years, the building was a hostel, the Philadelphia House, and the ghost sign remained visible. It then sat vacant for a period during 2020 until a vegan cultural center moved in. Earlier this year, the center bolted a laminate sign into the wall on top of the ARCHER & ELLISON ghost sign. Luckily, this means that the advertisement remains hidden underneath. The SUPPLY and CHINA sign on the side of the building remains undisturbed.
Ghost Sign: Leaders Silks Woolens
Location: 743 S. 4th Street
Not much was left of the ghost sign for Leaders Silks on Fabric Row in Queen Village. Best seen on the Fitzwater Street side of the building, the old sign had previously been covered by a layer of grey paint and then by signs for the restaurant Hungry Pigeon, then Fitz and Starts, and now Fitz on 4th. This sign looked like a ghost itself, as faux faded advertisements are very in fashion right now. The sign was blue with white lettering and read “SERVING LUNCH BREAKFAST DINNER COFFEE AND PASTRIES.” Green paint underneath clued the observer into an older sign. A photograph from March 18, 1938 shows a sign for Leaders Silk with a very similar design to the Hungry Pigeon sign, meaning the restaurant did their research. The original sign for Leaders Silks read: LEADERS SILKS WOOLENS VELVETS, with a hand’s pointer finger extended. Until this year, the only remnants of the old sign were the double OO in the word WOOLENS between BREAKFAST and DINNER.
The restaurant space went through ownership and rebranding changes in recent years and is now Fitz on 4th. A new sign was painted over the old advertisement on the brick wall along Fitzwater Street. Again, this is the life of ghost signs in our ever-changing city. The new sign will be a fun one to watch in the coming years. With at least two ghost signs underneath, it will be interesting to see how it holds up to the elements and fending off the old signs that will likely surface again.
Ghost Sign: Formal Dimensions
Location: 1105 Walnut Street
The Formal Dimensions sign, and the building it adorned, was demolished in September 2022. Development plans for the site dated back a few years. A high-rise residential tower is currently being built on the site. The three properties between 1101-1107 Walnut Street once housed many restaurants, most recently a Wendy’s fast food chain on the northwest corner of the intersection.
The lost ghost sign was painted on the east facing wall of 1105 Walnut Street and read “FORMAL DIMENSIONS TUXEDO SALES & RENTALS SAME DAY SERVICE,” with the company’s phone number, address, and a large, black arrow pointing downward to the storefront. Perhaps the best part of the sign was the image of a dapper gentleman in a tuxedo, top hat, and cane leaning in towards a woman in a dress holding flowers and fixing his boutonniere. A small nameplate under the sign read “BULLDOG,” which was likely the name of the sign’s painter.
Formal Dimensions, Inc. was founded sometime between 1982 and 1984 and remained at the address until at least 2002. A Formal Dimensions store is still in business today operating in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. However, its website’s detailed history in the “About Us” section makes no mention of a Philadelphia location. More recently, the storefront was home to a Qdoba Mexican fast food chain and then a restaurant named Spicy Memory. The upper floors housed an apartment. The building, which was built circa 1914, was sold in 2020 and was incorporated into the high-rise development plan. The sign and its unique imagery are now just a memory.