Whether or not you actively pay attention to them, vintage signs – both hand-painted/hand-lettered and manufactured – can be found all over Milwaukee. And once you start noticing them you can’t stop seeing them.
This is what happened to Old Milwaukee Facebook group creator Adam Levin, who has come to be the person many think of first when they spy a potentially "new" old sign.
In advance of a book launch event slated for Friday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m. at Boswell Book Co., 2559 N. Downer Ave., and another signing on Saturday, March 14 at 10 a.m., we asked Levin about what he loves about these remnants of the city’s commercial past.
OnMilwaukee: I know you have a passion for old Milwaukee, but how did you become interested more specifically in signage?
Adam Levin: Ghost signs and Mid-Century signs all over the country are disappearing and becoming extinct from the landscape. I appreciate these signs as works of are that are worth capturing with my camera or worth saving. Sign painting and sign writing are kind of a lost art. They're incredible reminders of years gone by in Milwaukee.
What do you think these signs can tell us about the past?
Ghost signs have a special place in any city across the country. Hand-painted signs were a popular form of advertising between the 1880s-1950s, before ads could be inexpensively mass produced, installed and replaced. Their remnants offer a backstory into a neighborhood’s past, reminding people about life at certain points in history.
What makes for a great old sign? What do the signs that blow you away the most possess?
The sign should NOT be restored or recreated. Many signs have been restored ... sometimes so well that it is difficult to tell if the sign is or is not original. The signs should not be too recent. My guideline is that any sign that has more than six digits in the phone number is too new. The ones that blow me away is when a building next to the ghost sign is removed and the sign is uncovered for the first time in many decades.
Do you have a favorite in the book?
When the Comedy Café was demolished in December 2017, an uncovered wall containing a ghost sign for a Wisconsin-only brand of gasoline, Pate Air Glide, was uncovered. I pleaded with the new arcade to save it, but unfortunately they couldn't. What fascinated me is NO one knew anything about the service station that used to be on the corner. Locating information about the station for my book was very challenging.
How did you dig up info on the signs?
I dug up information about the signs using the Milwaukee Public Library & Microfiche.
Is the book mostly eye candy for history lovers or do you hope that readers take away something more from the book?
Yes and definitely yes! Most people take ghost signs for granted and don't think about the history of them while walking past or driving by. Some friends of mine told me in recent years that when they see a ghost sign, they think of me and take a photo. Hopefully there's more of an appreciation for ghost signs and Mid-Century signs after reading my book.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.