Editor's note: The following is part of a continuing series of stories focusing on Butte's architectural treasures. The stories are researched and written by people affiliated with the Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization.
Among Butte's most valuable historical assets are the painted signs on the facades of many Uptown buildings.
They are known as “ ghost signs,” so called because many have faded beyond recognition from decades of exposure to the elements.
In the days before multi-media advertising, business owners used their facades as readily available canvasses to promote their goods and services. Nationwide, sign painters created mas terpieces on the sides of buildings, above doors and windows, and even on rooftops and boulders along the burgeoning national highway network in the early decades of the 20th century. Butte's ghost signs were painted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to advertise both local and national products.
The historic signs documented in Butte range from the 1890s to the 1960s. National products that were advertised include Coca-Cola and Wrigley's Spearmint Gum. Local merchants like the Lutey Brothers advertised their services on their own buildings. More than one beer compa ny rented space on the sides of buildings to pro mote “ Montana's Finest” and “ Butte's Best.”
Two of the largest ghost signs in Butte are the six-story Coca-Cola signs on the north and east facades of the Hirbour Tower, on the corner of Broadway and Main. The signs were painted in the 1920s in red and featured the famous trade mark Coca-Cola script. The red paint has faded to yellow and the Coca-Cola insignia is nearly invisible. The Coca-Cola Co. archives in Atlanta, Ga., most likely maintains the graphic and paint specifications for this sign.
Wrigley's Gum is advertised at 117 N. Wyoming St., in an alley behind the Acoma. The Wrigley Co. was founded in Chicago in 1891, sell ing Wrigley's Scouring Soap. With each soap pur chased, the customer received a premium of baking soda.
Wrigley's began manufacturing baking soda when it proved more popular than the soap. With the baking soda the company gave away two packs of chewing gum. It wasn't long before Wrigley's began manufacturing chewing gum exclusively, with Lotta and Vassar being its first brand names.
Juicy Fruit and Spearmint flavors were intro duced in 1893. A slow seller at first, Wrigley began advertising Spearmint Gum in 1906 in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, N.Y., with promising results. A year later, the gum was advertised nation ally. That year, Wrigley's advertised that its Spearmint gum contained pepsin. This promotion appears in the Butte advertisement; thus we esti mate that the signs dates from 1907.
Some local businesses that used hand-painted wall signs include Lutey's Grocery Co., Leys Jewelers, the Creamery Cafe, and Butte Carriage Works.
Joseph and William Lutey founded their grocery business in 1898 at 47 W. Park St. The men eventual ly expanded to 11 stores throughout the city. One ghost sign for Lutey's is located at 146 W. Park St., where a new store was opened in 1912. The sign, still legible, advertises “ Groceries,” “ Produce,” and “ Fresh Roasted Coffees.” The Lutey brothers did not support the Free Ireland movement and were boycotted by the Irish of the city, forcing the busi ness to close in 1924.
Leys Jewelry was founded by James Leys in 1890 at 2 N. Main St. In 1891, David Leys, James' brother, joined the business. David took over the business in 1893, when James left Butte that year for New York City. Alexander Christie also joined the company that year. The store moved in 1908 to 32 N. Main St., and finally in 1912 to 20 N. Main St., where it remained until it closed in 1963. The sign located to 20 N. Main St. was most likely painted in the 1920s.
The Creamery Cafe, advertising “ Booths for Ladies,” was located at 19 W. Broadway from 1917 to 1957. The business began in the basement of 36 N. Main St. in 1909; The Creamery Cafe promoted itself as a respectable place for ladies to dine, and the “ booths for ladies” are still seen in the interior.
Two locations of the Butte Carriage Works sport original signs. The oldest, estimated to have been painted in 1902, is located at 112-116 E. Galena St. The business was founded in 1885 and in 1898 advertised “ Carriage and Sign Painting, Bicycle Enameling and Ornamenting, Done in the Latest Style.” By the early 1920s, Butte Carriage Works moved to 38 E. Silver St., and had expanded its ser vices to include automobile repair.
Another type of painted sign was the “ privilege” sign. To secure a space for the sign, a deal, or “ priv ilege” was struck to advertise a product used by or sold at the business that owned the wall. Privilege signs were carefully measured and hand-painted by skilled sign painters. The signs were often white let tering on a black background. The white pigment was called “ white lead” and had a paste-like consis tency that resembled shortening. The color black was most often made from lampblack — a finely ground powder that looked like soot. Each sub stance was mixed with the right amount of varnish and linseed oil along with a drying agent like gaso line. The results were usually lasting. Because of the painters' craftsmanship and the durability of the materials, privilege signs reveal a reconstructable history about a community and its people.
The oldest ghost sign in Butte, a privilege sign, is located on the east facade of 445 E. Park St. The sign was painted in 1898 and reads “ Wright's Pharmacy — Drugs — Try Hoyer's Magic Liniment.” The sign is in excellent condition because in 1900, an addition to the original building was constructed, obscuring —and protecting — the sign. The sign was revealed once again a few years ago when the addition was removed following a fire.
Other privilege signs include the advertisement for Hanson Plumbing and Heating Co. on the west wall of the Grand Hotel at 124 W. Broadway. The Hanson company operated in Butte between 1908 and 1932, and the advertisement was probably com missioned sometime in the 1920s. Likewise, Sullivan Plumbing and Heating utilized the east wall of the Kenwood Hotel at 63 W. Broadway. Their sign dates from circa 1903.
Ghost signs are found throughout Butte. In May of 2000, Mainstreet Uptown Butte commissioned three students from Montana Tech to document over 30 signs located north of Mercury Street. There are probably at least as many ghost signs to be identified and documented south of Mercury Street as well, making Butte one of the nation's best places to view original and unique examples of his toric commercial art.
— Kim Kohn is the former director of the Mainstreet Uptown Butte association.
Ghost signs ID'd
in Uptown Butte
The following ghost signs have been identified and documented in Uptown Butte:
Sullivan Plumbing and Heating, undated, 63 1/2 W. Broadway
Burr's Department Store, undated, 66 W. Park St.
Sweet's Chocolate, undated, 78 E. Park St.
Overland Rye, undated, 17 W. Park St.
Babcock Hats and Furs, early 1890s, 12 W. Broadway
Wright's Pharmacy, 1898, 445 E. Park St.
Butte Carriage Works, 1902, 112-116 E. Galena St
The Kenwood, 1903, 63 1/2 W. Broadway
Phoenix Building, 1906, 66 W. Park St.
Symon's Department store, 1906, 66 W. Park St.
Wrigley's Gum, 1907, 117 N. Wyoming St.
Leonard Hotel, 1907, 205 W. Granite St.
Mai Wah Noodles & Chop Suey, 1909-1910, 19 W. Mercury St.
Harry Hanson Plumbing Co., red sign, 1910, 124 W. Broadway
Leys Jewelry, 1912, 20 N. Main St.
Lutey's Grocery, 1912, 146 W. Park St.
Leggat Hotel, 1915, 48-54 W. Broadway
Tait Hotel, 1915, 109 E. Broadway
Lincoln Hotel, 1915, 205-207 W. Park St.
Coca-Cola, 1920, 102 N. Main St.
Grand Hotel, white sign, 1920, 124 W. Broadway
Creamery Cafe, 1920s, 19 W. Broadway
Butte Carriage Works, 1921, 38 E. Silver St.
Leland Cafe, 1923, 43 E. Park St.
Salvation Army, 1923, 121 E. Broadway
Eddie's Bread, 1925, 43 E. Park St.
Oechsli Furniture, 1927, 42 W. Broadway
Wilson Motors, 1930s, 8 S. Montana St.
Miner's Union Bar-Grain Belt Beer, late 1930s, 5 S. Wyoming St.
Tom Morgan for Mayor, 1949, 56 E. Mercury St.
Gus's Lunch, 1952, 133 S. Main St.
Kehoe's Hat Box, 1955, 1-6 N. Main St.
Davis Motors, 1961, 19 W. Mercury St.
Smithers and Son, 1960s, 128 W. Granite St.
New Tait Hotel, 1963, 109 E. Broadway
Miners Bank Building, 1965-66, 66 W. Park St.
John — There is a breakout and a sidebar at the end of this.
All photos by Mike Hamblock
Wright's Pharmacy (could use this one as your main art)
The oldest sign in Butte, a “ privilege sign,” is located on the east fa'e7ade of 445 E. Park St. Painted in 1898, it reads “ Wright's Pharmacy — Drugs — Try Hoyer's Magic Liniment.”
One ghost sign for Lutey's grocery business, founded in 1898, is located at 146 W. Park St., where a new store was opened in 1912. The sign, still legi ble, advertises “ Groceries,” “ Produce,” and “ Fresh Roasted Coffees.”
recalls the past