Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Curious Ad

Cardui-WebOnce I saw the floating question mark next to the Mountain Dew and Pepsi logos, I had to know more about this wall. It's on the back of a building on the corner of 6th Avenue South and 27th Street South.

As you can see from the photo, there is an older fading ad here. It promotes Cardui, "The Woman's Tonic," a medicine for pain and "weakness"—in other words, menstrual cramps. The question mark comes from the probing, attention-grabbing headline that headlined most of Cardui's wall ads throughout many states: "Are You a Woman?" (now hidden under the soda ads).

The product was introduced around 1880 as "Dr. McElree's Wine of Cardui" by the Chattanooga Medicine Company. Through rumored to originate in a Cherokee recipe, Cardui included 19 percent alcohol. It's no wonder so many of Cardui's newspaper ads reprinted testimonials from delighted customers! One ad, from 1912, also noted that women "are subject to a large number of troubles and irregularities, peculiar to women, which, in time, often lead to more serious trouble." Cardui, it continued, "is needed to help you over the hard places, to relieve weakness, headache, and other unnecessary pains, the signs of weak nerves and over-work." Another ad claimed that Cardi acts "gently, yet surely, on the weakened womanly organs."

The 1912 ad used "Are You a Woman?"—which means that the Birmingham wall ad probably was originally painted around that time. According to fire insurance maps, this two-story building appeared on its corner by 1911; early on, it housed the East End Drug Company--a pharmacy that likely sold Cardui to women living in the surrounding residential neighborhood. The drugstore had morphed into a grocery by 1925, and over the decades, the space hosted a restaurant, tire company, upholsterer, and hardware seller.

Other faded signs on the 6th Avenue side of the building point to an automotive connection—perhaps from when Southern Rubber Company was located here in the 1940s, or from Automotive Industrial Supply, which moved in by 1963. The soda signs date from sometime after the mid-1970s, when Mountain Dew introduced this version of its logo. Currently, the building houses offices for a mental health services organization.
 
The Chattanooga Medicine Company still exists, under the name Chattem. It has a stable of well-known brands including Gold Bond, Coritzone-10, Icy Hot, Allegra, ACT, Selsun Blue, and Unisom. Cardui, however, disappeared from store shelves around the middle of the 20th century.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

High Fade

FirstNatlBankGhostSignNot long ago, I was driving through downtown Birmingham and caught a quick glimpse of the letter "F" atop one of the buildings. I finally got a chance to take another look, and lo and behold, a "new" ghost sign is emerging. Take a close look at the photo, at the top left corner of the building, and you'll see the faint outline of the word "First"—for First National Bank of Birmingham, which once had its headquarters in the Frank Nelson Building on the corner of 20th Street and 3rd Avenue North. (This sign is visible from 20th Street, facing the north side of the building.) According to Bhamwiki, First National Bank occupied this building from 1903 to 1940, meaning the sign dates from some point between those years. The bank, which could trace its lineage to 1872, when Charles Linn founded the city's first bank, went on to become AmSouth, now merged with Regions.

The sign probably featured white letters on a black background, which is reappearing from beneath the beige topcoat. Or else that wall was really dirty and sooty when it was repainted!



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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Music Notation

CharlemagneCheck this out. Renovations to the Five Points South building housing the legendary Charlemagne Record Exchange have revealed the shop's original hand-painted sign. It looks like it dates from Charlemagne's early days in the neighborhood, in the late '70s/early '80s, and has been hiding under an awning for decades. I'm not sure if the renovation plans call for a new awning, so be sure to stop by and see this small handmade wonder while you can.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Two Less

GraysonRosePaint-Morse

Photo courtesy of John Morse

Birmingham said goodbye to a pair of ghost signs this past week. The Grayson Rose Transmission signs on 6th Avenue South, with their cheerful "Friendly Grayson" mascot, vanished under a new coat of paint. The building is now part of Iron City, a new performance space (supposed to be amazing inside), which is preparing to open.

People often ask me how I feel when signs disappear in this manner. I bear no ill will toward a property owner who paints over an old sign; after all, the painted ads were never intended to last forever, and cities do change over time. However, it is sad to see a bit of color, character, and history--a little piece of Birmingham uniqueness--be replaced with a blank wall. In this case, Iron City could have used the still-vibrant Grayson Rose ads as a landmark to direct people to its doors. They certainly were worth keeping as a cool nod to the building's history. Definitely a missed opportunity.

The good news is that the signs aren't entirely gone. Ironically, the new coat of paint that hides the ads will help to preserve them by protecting them from the sun and weather. In a few decades, as the top coat fades, we'll see Friendly Grayson smile again.

I first saw these signs during a 5K race, of all things, in 2010. The sight of the colorful mascot, which had recently reappeared when siding was removed from the building, nearly stopped me in my tracks. You can learn more about the history of the Grayson Rose Transmission ads and their location in Birmingham's Automotive District in my book.

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