Philadelphia, PA

Philly Ghost Signs wants to document and explore the city’s history

Nick Fiorellini

Meet the person who runs @PhillyGhostSigns, Philadelphia’s hottest Instagram account documenting the city’s commercial history through fading and abandoned signs.

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Jordan Keiffer of Philly Ghost SignsCourtesy of Philly Ghost Signs

PHILADELPHIA, PA — There are a lot of ghosts in Philadelphia.

There’s one on 1216 Spruce Street on the southeast corner of Spruce and Camac; a bigger one on the corner of 2nd and Arch Streets; and another on the sidewalk in front of 2001 Kater Street in Graduate Hospital.

But, no, these ghosts aren’t the spooky spectral kind that will keep you up at night. They’re ghost signs, old, typically hand-painted, advertisements that have been kept up by a building’s owner, despite its message or the business itself being obsolete or dated. The building’s owner may keep the signs for its nostalgic appeal or indifference. And one Philadelphia area man, Jordan Keiffer, has found his place online among the expanding world of public history influencers in the region as @PhillyGhostSigns on Instagram.

Speaking with NewsBreak, Keiffer shares why he’s interested in ghost signs, how he started his account, and how he thinks you can become involved in the growing online ghost sign community.

A growing curiosity

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Ghost sign of John Evan's Sons. The business is still operating but not at this location.Courtesy of Philly Ghost Signs

Back in 2018, Keiffer began reading articles and following different accounts online that showcased ghost signs throughout the country. The media he consumed often showed the state of the current sign to what it looked like back in the day.

He believes this is the rabbit hole many other ghost sign enthusiasts fall down.

“Everybody at some point — in their neighborhood — has seen an old advertisement, a painted wall ad, or a mosaic on the ground in front of the store,” Keiffer says. “And they’ve wondered: ‘Okay, that business isn’t there anymore. That name is something unique and interesting, and I want to know more about it.’”

Over time, he began to realize many other people liked ghost signs - that he wasn’t the only person with this niche interest: “I've realized that I'm not the only one doing it. People have done it in Philadelphia before me, to the point where there's been an individual who wrote a book on the topic in Philadelphia.”

One of these enthusiasts is Len Davidson, founder of the Neon Museum of Philadelphia. His museum is currently hosting a special exhibit - Seeing Ghosts: 7 Photographers Capture Faded Wall Ads - that runs until August 3. Keiffer’s work is featured in the exhibit.

Research and get outside

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Ghost sign of Society Hill Furniture in Center City.Courtesy of Philly Ghost Signs

The barrier to entry to document ghost signs, Keiffer says, is very minimal. Anyone can do it.

While Keiffer typically uses a Nikon DSLR camera to document his findings, he maintains that, in the right scenarios, a smartphone camera can be just as effective — and is the perfect tool for someone who’s just getting started. (In fact, Keiffer told me he purposely upgraded his iPhone to get a better camera, although the zoom feature, he admits, is still not as great as his Nikon camera.) That’s because the biggest impact on what makes a good photo of a ghost sign is the photographer’s vantage point and the lighting.

Unfortunately, this means those who’re interested in starting to photograph these signs now will come to realize that summer isn’t the best time of year to do so because the summer sun often leads to signs being “washed out” and hard to see. Because of that, Keiffer recommends spending the summertime doing research and photographing signs in the fall and winter.

But don’t let that deter you from starting, because his most important advice:

“Just be curious. If something catches your eye, and you want to know about it, look into it and do the research by looking at historical records online and putting in the time. Don’t be afraid to share what interests you. I had this fear that no one on Instagram would follow along. But it really caught on, and there’s definitely a core group of people who love it.”

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Nick Fiorellini is a freelancer writer from the Philadelphia area.

Philadelphia, PA
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