I was flying around the tiny hamlet of Norwood, New York the other day (via Google Maps) searching for a fabled wall-sized poster promoting an 1890’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While I couldn’t find that, I did find this. Would it be worth the 10-hour roundtrip to photograph?

At first glance, this ghost sign doesn’t look like much. But even on the fuzzy Google image I could make out the remnants of a circa 1910 Wrigley’s Spearmint ad (the distinctive gum pack, with its black arrow and reversed text, starts just above the red light fixture, cuts diagonally up and to the right, ending just under the faint “S”). Frankly, that alone was enough to justify this obsessive’s journey. But there was more. The bits of letters here and there, and the color variations between them, made me think this wall might yield itself to a Photoshop “X-ray” technique I’d been hoping to try.

This video describes an image processing technique pioneered by Dr. Ken Jones, the country’s premiere ghost sign documentarian. Dr. Jones has used this technique not only to separate the painted layers of ghosts signs, but to assist archeologists studying cave paintings and other petroglyphs.

Previous experiments using nothing more than Photoshop’s black and white filter generated some pretty good results. This sign from Yonkers provides a dramatic example.

Using only Photoshop’s black and white filter, I was able to explore the separate layers of this largely unreadable sign. Using only the red and yellow color controls, I was able to separate the Domizio and Everts Electrical Contractors promotion from a later Coca-Cola promotion (faint but recognizable at the top). But this technique has limits.

For the Norwood sign, I followed Dr. Jones’ steps to the letter. His technique suggests separating the component layers of an image – red, green and blue – and whacking their histograms using the equalize filter. From there, an image can be explored in much greater detail.

A quick first pass revealed a large list of words on the right.

Pretty obviously a furniture store. Furniture is the second word down. It is one of the most common ghost sign words, and my eyes are tuned to see it. The other words required some puzzling over. Below furniture, the words pianos and organs came pretty quickly. But it took quite a bit of staring and cross referencing with other furniture ghosts in my collection to get the rest. Gradually the words emerged.

Still, there was the problem of the store’s name, the top line on the right side. After fiddling further with the layers and filters, I managed this reverse image, which made a few of the top line characters a little clearer. This was enough to start making some educated guesses.

The first letters popped as “Geo,” perhaps because I’d previously photographed this ghost from Newburgh, New York.

If the first letters were Geo, I took the leap and assumed the second cluster was an initial followed by a period. And I was pretty sure the last few characters were “ard.” A fellow sign nut suggested the word might be “Bernard.” But those letters didn’t fall quite right and a Google search turned up no “Bernard Furniture” stores in the region. I ended up doing a search via NYS Historic Newspapers for businesses that sold pianos and organs in the north country and came up with this:

With the right side filled in, or so I thought, it was time to see what I could uncover on the left. Almost invisible in the original, in ochre just above the light fixture, is the silhouette of a trumpeter in a broad brimmed hat and coat. And from his bell seemed to blow another list.

The first word, mattresses, seemed pretty clear. The other words required yet more hours of filtering, and a lot of guesswork.

Ultimately, I settled on this list, thought I had to do some searching to figure out how recently the terms “dinette” and “living room” were coined. Living room dates to the mid-nineteenth century. Dinette is newer, but probably old enough to be here.

Now it was time to turn my attention to the most mysterious word on the wall, the very faint but rather large letters or logo above the trumpeter.

They look to spell Serrish. But what is Serrish? A Google search turned up very little. It took some more staring, but I eventually concluded that the first character isn’t an “S,” but instead a script “G.” So, Gerrish … not that that helped much. But it has lead me down a possible and possibly very interesting path. Again using the NYS Historic Newspapers search engine, I found an ad for Brown’s Sarsaparilla from 1886, a patent cure for diseases of the “Kidneys, Liver and Blood.” Look who is promoting it! One Rev. Theodore Gerrish!

I have not been able to find any reference to the brand name Gerrish. But the date and style are right for this to be a patent medicine ad. Of course, the real answer could be more prosaic. Gerrish may just have been the original name of the furniture store, later taken over by Geo. L. Shephard. I have a call in to the Norwood town historian.

But speaking of the original furniture store, all my fiddling did surface one last readable layer. Under the nearly impossible to decipher Geo. L. Shephard, when I really cranked the controls, I found yet another ghost.

The easy to spot word furniture again emerged, and below it, “Music Store” (with an “and” between them). This linkage, between furniture and music, reminds us that prior to radio, and later television, families had to manufacture their own entertainment.

At the end of the day, or a couple of days actually, I pronounce this a history lessen worth the drive.