Illuminated ‘ghost signs’ offer glimpse into history of Winnipeg’s Exchange District

The 'Porter Milady' sign on McDermot Street. This weekend, the two layers of this 'ghost sign' will be illuminated.

Some of the Exhange District’s fading advertisements will get a shiny new lease on life, beginning at this weekend’s Nuit Blanche festival.

The downtown area is home to upwards of 150 ‘ghost signs’ — advertisements painted on the sides of buildings that are in various states of fading and decay, giving passersby a glimpse into Winnipeg’s history.

Brand strategist and urban archaeologist Matt Cohen told 680 CJOB’s The News he has been working to find the city’s oldest ghost signs, and with the help of new technology, illuminating them — permanently — for nighttime visitors to the Exchange to enjoy.

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“Every sign tells a really unique story about the brands and businesses that were located here at the turn of the century,” Cohen said.

“There’s all sorts of products advertised from stomach powder and canned ham to chocolate companies, and I think it’s such a unique thing that we have in Winnipeg.”

This weekend will see the revival of the so-called ‘Porter Milady’ sign on the wall of 165 McDermot St. The sign is actually a palimpsest, or a ghost sign with multiple fading ads painted on top of each other.

Beginning this weekend, Cohen and experiential designer and light artist Craig Winslow will be reviving two different layers — an advertisement for the Porter & Co. crockery and China company, which operated on McDermot from the early 1900s through 1943, and a 1945 advertisement for Milady Chocolates, which was located there until 1973.

“We’ll be turning on the ‘Porter Milady’ sign, and it’ll be a permanent install, basically until the lights burn out in seven or eight years,” Cohen said.

Beginning this weekend, Cohen said there will be a rotation of several projections in the Exchange and around the downtown area, thanks to Winslow’s projection techniques.

“He’ll use projection mapping — he’ll take a picture of a ghost sign, illustrate the letters and then project it back on the wall at night as if it were freshly painted.

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“We produced an event in 2017 where we illuminated five different signs, and then last year we turned one of those five signs into a permanent installation in the Exchange District.”

That permanent sign, launched in July of last year, was a three-layer palimpsest, featuring ads for Stobart, Sons & Co. (1907), Christie Grant Mailorder (1915), and Barber-Ellis Envelope Manufacturers (1922).

More information about the history and the illuminations is available at the Winnipeg Ghost Signs website.

Click to play video: 'Ghost signs have been up around the Exchange District for more than a century. Even now each one still has a story it’s trying to sell'
Ghost signs have been up around the Exchange District for more than a century. Even now each one still has a story it’s trying to sell

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