Winnipeg ghost signs 'fading from existence'

Old fading ads and signs that were plastered across Winnipeg buildings' sides are disappearing, and with them a part of the city's history, Matt Cohen says.

Signs painted on sides of downtown buildings give 'insight into how we grew' as a city

You've probably passed by them thousands of times on your way through the Exchange District — old, fading ads and signs that were plastered across Winnipeg buildings' sides over the last century.

It turns out they're disappearing, and with them, a part of the city's history.

"They're literally fading from existence," said Matt Cohen.
Red River College is in the process of covering up a large sign for the Royal Bank on Main Street and William Avenue. It sits at the top of the school's hospitality school and culinary arts department. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Cohen, a creative director with a local advertising firm, documents and collects old signs in Winnipeg. The city's ghost signs capture a unique moment in time that represents part of the collective identity of Winnipeggers, he said.

There are currently about 150 ghost signs in the Exchange District alone, and Cohen covers 50 to 75 of them in his 90-minute walking tours.
Matt Cohen points out a ghost sign to Carrey Stevenson (left). (CBC)

Cohen's favourite signs in the Exchange are based on retail products from 60 to 80 years ago.

"The early signs that you see tend to be just text, and I find the artistry from the ones that were painted in the '40s or '50s, and when they were direct replicas of something you could buy on the shelf, are incredibly interesting," he said.

Carrey Stevenson went on one of Cohen's tours over the weekend. He has lived in Winnipeg his entire life and has grown more interested in local history over the years.

"I am conscious of ghost signs.… Somehow today, he showed us signs I'd never seen," Stevenson said. "I guess as a result, my ghost sign radar is at a higher level now."

Winnipeg walking tours allow participants to travel back in time and get to know the businesses behind the ads and the impact they played in shaping the landscape of the district. 1:26

Cohen said it's important that Winnipeggers and visitors to the city stop and reflect on the significance of the signs and what they say about the city's past.

"The amazing thing about these signs is that they do give us an insight into how we grew," he said. "They give you insights into the history of our city and the buildings and the people who helped build it to what it is today."

The ghost sign tours run once or twice a month during the summer.