Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Spokane Ghost Sign Project, an Experiment in Public History Pedagogy

[Update: Bonus Research Tip about using Google Street View added 3/9/2012, see the bottom of the post!]

[The following are assignment instructions for some of my Public History students. As I was typing them up I though--"Hey, this might make a good blog post."]

The Spokane Ghost Sign Project is an experiment in crowd sourcing a community history project with a few simple, free digital tools. The project goal is to create a interactive visual record of Spokane's ghost signs and their history. The educational goal is to introduce public history students to some basic digital and research tools, including Flickr, Google News Archive, city directories, Sanborn maps, and archival research.

Advertisement from 1907 Spokane city directory.
A ghost sign is a sign, usually hand-painted on the side of a brick building, for a business that is no longer around. (For the purposes of this assignment any sign for a closed business counts as a ghost sign.) These signs can persist for decades after a business has vanished and are often the only visible record of the institution. This Flickr pool provides some examples, including quite a few in Spokane. Ghost signs are major uninterpreted historical objects in our public spaces--and we can't have that! So let's interpret some.

The assignment is straightforward enough: Find some ghost signs, take pictures, research the history of the business advertised in the sign, and put the results up on our own Flickr pool. This is the first time I have given this assignment but I think it will be fun and will sharpen your public and digital history skills.
Historian want a cracker? See the Sanborn map image below.

Step 1: Find and photograph some ghost signs. When hunting for ghost signs look for old brick buildings--the older and more run down the better. In Spokane the old warehouses along the railroad tracks retain a lot of ghost signs. You might also explore the edges of downtown where the buildings are less likely to have been restored and repainted. Also try the near Spokane Valley and north of the river.

Bring 1) a decent camera with a zoom, 2) a notebook and pencil, 3) a map of Spokane on which you can take notes (print off a few pages of Google Maps?) and a 4) pocketful or quarters. Your cell phone camera is probably not up to the task buy any $100 point-and-shoot with at least a 3X zoom should do the trick. Take your time and try to get a good clear shot. Experiment with photographing from different angles for a more interesting shot.

Do not trespass to get your photograph, stay on the sidewalks, and do not get run over by a car. The latter will result in an automatic F. 

Step 2: Research the history of your businesses. Your goal is to write a couple of paragraphs, not a research paper, but you need to get the information right. Think of the 5 Ws--who what when where and why? There are many resources for researching local history, here are a few of the best for this assignment:
Sanborn map detail for Washington Cracker Co.
  • City directories for Spokane go back to the late 1880s and up to the present. The bulk of the directories are devoted to listing the name, address and occupation of every person in the city, but they also include business listings in the back, along with advertisements. Take a guess at when the business might have existed and start with a directory from that year. The directories are a little confusing at first but you will soon get the hang of how they are organized. You will find nearly-complete runs of Spokane directories at the Eastern Region Branch of the State Archives in Cheney, at the Northwest Room of Spokane Public Library, and in the Joel E. Ferris Research Library at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture. The directories can tell you what years the business existed, other places it might have been located, sometimes the business owners and where they lived, and what goods and services the business might have dealt in. Bring your camera because you might find an interesting illustration or advertisement.
  • While you are looking at city directories take a few minutes to examine some Sanborn maps for your block. These are incredibly detailed block-by-block maps that were made of American cities, beginning in the late 1800s, to help insurance companies estimate fire insurance liabilities. Look at the example of the Washington Cracker Company building on this page--it is a wealth of information. Collections of Sanborn Maps fro Spokane are available at the Northwest Room and at the Joel E. Ferris Research Library int he MAC.
  • If your building is on the Spokane Register of Historic Places you are in luck. The Spokane Historic Preservation Office has some valuable online resources, include a list of all designated properties in Spokane. Watch for the words Nomination (PDF) at the bottom of the property description because for some properties you download the historic register nomination form, which will have all the information you will need.
  • Old newspapers may have information about your business. We are very fortunate in Spokane because the Google News Archive has scanned most of the historic newspapers for our town and put them online. Searching it is a bit tricky--try using complete phrases, limiting the years of your search, and entering "Spokesman" in the source box or "Spokane" in the place box. Take your time and learn how to use this resource. If you find a striking headline or advertisement for your business, do a screen capture and save the image.
  • Good old archival research is productive and fun. The Northwest room of the Spokane Public library has many old street view photographs, clippings files, and other possible sources of information, as does the Joel E. Ferris Library at the MAC. Hint: People who are nice and polite to the archivists often discover more information.
  • Finally, there is THE GOOGLE. There is tremendous interest in local history out there, and often a Google search with the name of a company plus Spokane will turn up a newspaper article, a webpage, an old postcard, or other historical gem.
Step 3: Edit your pictures for maximum impact. I like the free Google product Picasa for simple photo editing, but you can use whatever you prefer.
Directories often include valuable illustrations such
as this. Click here to see the present street view.

Step 4: Load your picture(s) and your short history of the company to our Flickr pool, Ghost Signs of Spokane. You will have to establish a free Flickr account and then ask to join the group. I will approve your membership and you can upload your photos and descriptions. Note: When you load your photographs to Flickr I strongly encourage you to use some form of Creative Commons licensing. Ta da! You have documented community history.

Bonus Research Tip: (added 3/9/2012) It just occurs to me the Google Street View is a very useful tool for this project. With GSV you can "drive" down nearly any street in Spokane and scout ahead for ghost signs, or at least for neighborhoods of old brick buildings that are likely places for the signs. You could also use GSV after you find a sign if you misplaced the address. Here is one ghost sign viewable on GSV downtown (it is for the Grand Coulee Hotel and is far more readable in person than it appears here), and here is a little one on the side of a building in the East Central neighborhood.

Friends and students, this is my first time through with this assignment, so be sure to report any difficulties or make suggestions in the comments section. 
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Sam Roberts (Ghostsigns) said...

An interesting assignment. You may be familiar with this already but in the UK I managed a national project to photographically document ghostsigns across the country. We used various social media including Flickr, Youtube and a blog. The results can be found in the History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive. You might also refer your students to some of the books written on the subject and also some of the articles available via my website.

Unknown said...

fabulous I'd love to adapt for my history in the city class next fall as Philadelphia has many many such signs

Larry Cebula said...

@Sam: I LOVE your project, very ambitious and the signs are wonderful. I'll be incorporating it into the lesson.

@Prof M: Adapt away! Funny how the best scholarship is original but the best teaching is taken from here and there.

Sam Roberts (Ghostsigns) said...

@Prof M, you should investigate this project.

helen said...

Sounds like a great history project.