Located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, the Old Market is a historic neighborhood district bordered by South 10th Street to the east, and 13th Street to the west, Farnam Street to the north, and Jackson Street to the south. Known for its numerous shops, art exhibits, unique restaurants, and craft bars, the Old Market has come a long way from its bustling beginnings as a manufacturing and commercial district. With brick-paved streets, late 19th and early 20th century architecture, and horse-drawn carriages, the Old Market remains an Omaha landmark that offers tourists a peek into Omaha’s industrious history. Yet while architecture and foodie enthusiasts roam the cobbled streets, viewing street performers and horse-ridding police patrols alike, most visitors are unaware of the fading gems hidden in the rough brick walls of the buildings that mark its history: Omaha’s ghost signs.
Before interstate billboards, television advertisements, or neon flashing signs, there were hand-painted signs. 'Ghost signs' are the faded remains of hand-painted advertisements, placards, and business names painted onto brick buildings, often used as a way to signal their location and products to pedestrians and motorists. These signs, often painted over in the past in lieu of modernizing efforts, or demolished in the name of development along with the buildings they used to grace, are now a protected and treasured part of Omaha’s historical heritage. Regarded now as a form of precious visual history, the signs that once showcased manufacturing giants of old now serve to highlight Omaha’s historical importance within westward expansion, industrialization, and its status as a major Midwest manufacturing distribution hub.
While today’s development of the Old Market continues to threaten the destruction of these rare echoes from the past, there has been a strong shift towards preservation and an appreciation for these old signs. These ghost signs, once covered up with paint or drywall, are now desirable features used to appeal to visitors and renters who come to the Old Market expecting a measure of historic urban flavor. The Skinner Macaroni Loft Apartments, for example, still retain the faded sign, “Skinner Macaroni Products,” from the pasta manufacturing company that got its start in Omaha in 1911. Originally a factory, the brick building found at 13th and Jackson Streets, was modernized and renovated for loft living—yet the sign remained as a nod to the building’s history. The Skinner Macaroni building is not the only historical factory-turned-living space, the Eggerss-O’Flying at south 15th street was once headquarters to the Eggerss–O'Flyng Company, which manufactured cardboard boxes. Here, too, you will find the remnants of large, blocky white letters that scrawl across the length of the building, reading: “BOXES – CARTONS – CONTAINERS – CORRUGATED PAPER PRODUCTS.” From the outside, these lofts still retain the aesthetic of a manufacturing space, perfectly blending in with the Old Market's overall rustic charm.
Some ghost signs remain front-and-center, much like the famous Baum Iron Company's prominent hand-painted sign that has remained in place since 1911, but some signs require exploration and careful attention. The curious traveler will find ghost signs in alleyways, along hidden passages, in cafes, or around the innocuous bend. Mostly, though, the average visitor will walk past these signs, unaware of the history that blends, fades, yet remains.
Should you find yourself in the Old Market on some sunny day, take a moment to look up—pause, take it in—because you just might glimpse a ghost.