Ken Jones’ Butte Palimpsests 2

Dr Ken Jones has been doing an incredible job documenting the ghostsigns of America via his American Ghosts project. Not only does this involve detailed photographic documentation (see previous post on his process), but also pinning ghostsigns onto an ever-growing map. This now pinpoints thousands of examples and allows areas with high densities of signs to be located. One such location is Butte, Montana, where there has been an ongoing debate about options for their mass ‘restoration‘.

While working with Light Capsules’ Craig Winslow last year to bring his project to London, we discussed Ken’s work, as we are both big fans. In particular we were talking about palimpsests, and how Craig’s methodology works very well for teasing apart the different layers present on the same wall. Craig mentioned offhand that Ken had an example with myriad signs on one wall, as opposed to the usual two or three, and so I got in touch to find out more.

Palimpsest, Butte Montana, by Ken Jones

This is the wall in question and I’ll take from Ken’s email by way of explanation, with numbers in brackets to serve as a tally.

From the left: yellow background/black letters, the black letters are for Elgin Watches (1), the darker yellow brown letters are for Block Bros (2); Mail Pouch Tobacco (3); The grey letters say “Buy … by the …” which is part of a Wrigley’s (4) chewing gum sign. The next panel with the greenish background is for two separate Wrigley’s (5, 6) ads. The next panel with the red background is for Sweet’s Chocolate (7). The ad on the right, which is much more recent, is for Highlander Beer (8), a local Montana brand.

In addition there is the large Rooms to Rent sign straddling them all, bringing the total on this one wall to at least nine. This wall in Springfield, Massachusetts, has more individual compositions, but doesn’t have this feature of them all overlapping. Ken Jones’ Butte discovery is therefore another world record contender for the most ‘palimpsested’ ghostsigns on one wall.

In addition to Ken’s insights into the multiple layers on this wall, he also sent through another beautiful palimpsest from the same city. I would be very interested to know if there is any historical reason why Butte has such a high density of ghostsigns, please get in touch with any useful leads, or leave a comment below. Thank you again Ken for sharing your wonderful work, you can find more on his website and Facebook page.

Palimpsest, Butte, Montana, Elgin Watches and Wrigley Spearmint Gum, by Ken Jones

  • Charles Windham

    You ask the question of why Butte, Montana has so many “Ghost Signs”. Having lived in this part of the US (Mountain West) my entire life, I would like to offer some insight.

    During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Butte with nearly 100,000 residents, rivaled Denver and Salt Lake City in the mountain west. Being a large mining boom town, the commercial district was large. Many brick buildings for the sign painters.

    As with many mining towns the “bust” hit Butte in the mid 20th Century. The population declined over the decades and today has leveled out in the mid 30,000 range. What has saved a large percentage of the signs was designation as a US Historical District. There are many regulations regarding the destruction, replacement and renovation to buildings in a historical district. Every time something is proposed for a building, there is a long review process.

    As a side note to Butte, there were probably countless signs lost, due to the mining activity of Anaconda Cooper. The Berkeley Pit consumed a large portion of east Butte. Several communities were swallowed up and their commercial areas are gone.

    • Thanks Charles, that’s really useful to know. I’ve also heard that there are divisions within Butte about proposals to re-paint large numbers of the signs. Do you have any insights into that debate and where it now stands?