BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS, SOME OF THESE SIGNS MAY NO LONGER EXIST.
Once upon a simpler time, hand-painted and hand-crafted signs brought colour and vibrancy to Australian towns and cities — advertising everything from dining rooms, milk bars, and CWA halls to Peter’s ice cream, oatmeal stout, Chinese restaurants and Shelley’s famous drinks. Now faded and slowly disappearing, they tell the story of life over two centuries, recording a distinctly Australian vernacular language.
Signs come and go. But the ones that remain are a visual record of Australian social history. They tell us who we are and how we got here, and they preserve a history of commercial sign writing and typography too. In our search for vintage signs for our book Signs of Australia, we drove more than 40,000 kilometres and visited thousands of villages, towns and cities in all eight of Australia’s states and territories. We didn’t always know what we’d find or even where to look. But sure enough, there they were: a beer-drinking emu in outback Queensland; an entire shed advertising Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills in a paddock on the outskirts of Maitland; a large pink neon poodle promoting a Gold Coast
motel that no longer exists; a four storey dingo on the side of an old flour mill in Fremantle.
Broken Hill, New South Wales
Coober Pedy, South Australia
Mostly these old signs are referred to as ‘ghost signs’. They are often hand-painted advertisements on brick walls for old brands and products that belong primarily to the advertising age before the internet. There are ghost signs in every town in Australia: we walk and drive past them every day. But unless you’re looking out for them, you might not even notice they’re there. Some ghost signs are just a shadow of their former selves, visible only in the right light or weather conditions, like the Zebra Stove Polish ad high on a sandstone wall in Liverpool Street, Hobart. We quickly found that all these old signs have stories. The many ads for Bushells reveals Australia’s love affair with tea: find one of these and you might also spot one for Robur nearby, which points to the tea war once waged on suburban streets.
In Fremantle WA, the four-storey Dingo Flour sign has adorned the brand’s now heritage-listed mill since 1940, and for generations of locals it has signalled proximity to the beach (and to port for seafarers). But almost 80 years of salty winds have taken their toll, and so in 2016 the corrugated iron panels that comprise the sign were removed and repainted. We arrived to see it, less than fresh from crossing the Nullarbor, just as the last panel was being taken down. That’s the thing about sign hunting: you’ve got to be in the right place at the right time. A return trip captured the landmark freshly restored – no longer in the business of advertising Dingo brand flour but still guiding locals around Fremantle. But signs aren’t just found in cities and towns. We found memorable signs on otherwise empty roadsides, where they play an important role in keeping drivers alert. On Queensland’s Bruce Highway, we saw corrugated iron tanks painted up to look like beer cans – signs that repurpose existing infrastructure and make drivers thirsty for the pub in the next town. In South Australia and Western Australia, we saw faded advertising for brands long gone, such as Kalgoorlie Bitter and Burfords Prize Soap, painted up high on the sides of huge but now disused elevated water tanks. We searched old pubs, milk bars and train stations and looked behind shops and above a whole lot of awnings. We sticky-beaked along disused railways, old city laneways, in industrial areas and the dusty streets of sleepy towns. We captured thousands of signs along the way, many more than we could fit in our book.
Fremantle, Western Australia
Merredin, Western Australia
Finding great vintage signs feels a little bit like striking gold. While composing a shot of a sign in Darwin, we glanced up at the inside of the awning and noticed the hand painted words ‘Sue Wah Chin’. Born in China in 1901, she trained as a teacher, had five children, survived a typhoon at sea, the Japanese invasion of China and the bombing of Darwin to become a successful entrepreneur. The building named after her is one of the last remnants of Darwin’s nineteenth-century Chinatown. And here was possibly Darwin’s oldest sign, obscured to allow a new business to display its own.
Darwin, Northern Territory
Despite many old signs disappearing, a renewed interest in the handmade and the bespoke trades of the past is creating the ghost signs of the future. Sign writing has been part of this revival, blurring the painted line between signs, street-art and advertising. At Melbourne Central shopping centre, huge murals advertising global brands and movies are once again being painted by hand. Sign makers and businesses are increasingly looking to the past for inspiration for eye-catching new signs. Vintage-inspired neon signs are lighting up across the country, each competing for business on city streets and back alleys. These are the vintage signs of the future, if they last that long. Taken together, the signs of Australia tell us about who we are. They tell us where we’ve been, what we eat and drink and what we wash ourselves with. They reveal the boom and bust of mining towns and the changing styles and trends of Australian tourism and consumerism. They tell us the 1956 Melbourne Olympics were celebrated with signs across the country, that we used to love playing squash, and that we've always loved beer, baked goods, hot coffee and fish and chips.
Signs of Australia features a selection of some of our favourite signs, from the well-known and perfectly preserved to the neglected and long forgotten. It‘s also a celebration of typography, design, advertising and the makers of these signs, past and present. We were always interested in signs, admiring the iconic Skipping Girl Vinegar neon sign in Richmond, Melbourne (now heritage-listed) and being wowed by the Pink Poodle neon sign when holidaying in Surfer's Paradise, Queensland. One of Brady's earliest memories is of the flashing Kevin Corby Chemist neon sign which still greets drivers entering the city from the south (although sadly it no longer lights up). A keen photographer of the everyday, Brady has recorded an impressive array of signs from across Australia — from the earliest ads for household goods and services, to more recent but now defunct video lending libraries and internet cafés. His eye has always been drawn to the beauty in the everyday, initially as part of his Grouse photography series, which captures everyday scenes in the city and suburbs of Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney. Signs began to appear more and more in Brady's photographs, as he noticed more and more of them.
When our publisher New South contacted us about making a book about vintage or 'ghost' signs in Australia, we jumped at the chance! Signs have been the subject of quite a bit of interest overseas - particularly in America - but there was no photography book specifically about Australian vintage signs and advertising. So we hired a 90s Tarago camper van and hit the road on the hunt for signs. And we found many more signs than we bargained for. Thousands, in fact. About 500 signs have made it into the book, all hand-picked by us. We hope that after looking at the many and varied vintage signs around the country, you will never look at Australia quite the same way again. And if you've ever been on a great Australian drive, Signs of Australia is sure to bring back fond road trip memories, as it has for us. Enjoy!