Mapping Melbourne’s ‘ghost signs’: ‘It’s become an obsession – I know it sounds unhealthy!’

Melbourne is littered with old painted logos and signs for businesses and brands that are long gone – and they’re attracting big audiences on Instagram

Walk around Melbourne for even a short while and you’ll start seeing ghosts. Glance at any old building in the city or any fading milk bar in the suburbs, and you’ll spot them: the faded logos and signs for companies and products that have often long since disappeared, telling the history of a building like rings in a tree.

Sean Reynolds is an aficionado of these “ghost signs”, and has lockdowns “to thank, slash blame for it,” he says. He moved to Melbourne from the US eight years ago, but first became fascinated by the signs while walking in Yarraville and Footscray with his young daughter during their daily lockdown outings.

Melbourne ghost signs story. Bushells coffee signs on a boarded up shop in Bent Street, Moonee Ponds. Australia.
A Bushells coffee sign on a boarded-up shop in Bent Street, Moonee Ponds. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“I am American – I don’t have any cultural context for these things – so for me, it is all new,” he said. He loved the faded handpainted signs, the intricate glasswork and the old factories for brands he’d never heard of before: Peters ice-cream, Uncle Tobys, Four’n Twenty pies. He began to post photos to Instagram, “to keep a running history of what I was finding” – and before long, @melbourne_ghostsigns had more than 23,000 followers. He now gets between 10 and 20 tips a day on where to find more.

“There are a lot of people documenting these things, but not a lot of people researching their history,” he said. “So I started doing that – like, what is Robur Tea? I wanted to know the stories behind them.”

“I think people would think I was insane, the amount of work I do on it. But it’s my hobby. It’s like solving a mystery, in a way – I know the history of Melbourne so well, in a way that a lot of people don’t. As an American migrant, that’s probably pretty weird for people!”

Reynolds is now part of a wider social media trend of popular accounts documenting life in Melbourne: like the TikToker Garden State Journal, who has thousands watching his videos of quotidian life in Melbourne’s suburbs; or @housesofnorthandwestmelbourne on Instagram, which posts histories of old homes in the city’s north-west.

“Every sign tells a story,” Reynolds says. “It probably sounds obnoxious, but I call myself a cultural archaeologist – I am uncovering these stories that probably haven’t even been thought of in 100 years.”

“I am not monetising it at all, I just really love doing it. It has become an obsession – I know that sounds unhealthy!”

His posts are often rich with tragedy, pieced together from old newspapers: buildings filled with murders, court cases, bad husbands, bad wives. Some are lighter, like the confectioner tasked with baking the world’s largest cake, or state icons like Little Audrey, skipping on the Richmond skyline. Many are simply about the march of time: the grocery shops once passed down from father to son, the factories that now lie silent.

Velvet sign, on the back of an old shop in Park Street, Abbotsford.
A Velvet sign, on the back of an old shop in Park Street, Abbotsford. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian
The Suit Hospital sign on a shop in Cardigan Place, Albert Park.
The Suit Hospital sign on a shop in Cardigan Place, Albert Park. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Outside of his day job in marketing, Reynolds goes once or twice a week for a walk around a suburb and takes pictures. He marks locations he is tipped off about on Google Maps and goes hunting – “often I am not fast enough to catch them before they are demolished” – then researches the history, using the State Library, Trove and even real estate listings.

“I then handwrite the history of the place – like, in 1970 it was a milk bar, 1950 it was a grocery store, 1920 it was a newsagent, 1900 it was a horse shoe forge,” he says.

He is particularly fond of milk bars, and dedicates one day a week to #MilkBarMondays. “We didn’t have anything like that in the US – New York has the bodega, but I grew up in the mid-west and all the old corner stores have been taken over by 7-11s. Milk bars are so cool to me,” he says.

He loves signs that are particularly Australian – “there’s an amazing Four’n Twenty pies sign in Albert Park, of a pie with a moustache” – and long lost brands like Robur: a Melbourne tea company that began in the 1890s, when Australians were drinking the most tea in the world per capita (each person enjoyed about 4 to 5kg of tea a year).

“I love Robur because it was a Melbourne company and I have such love for Melbourne as my adopted hometown,” he says. “I also like that the signs often only say ‘Robur’ – they’re like the Nike of tea.”

Velvet sign on the back of an old shop in Park Street, Abbotsford. The Yarra Coffee palace in Stephen Street, Yaraville.
The Yarra Coffee Palace in Stephen Street, Yarraville. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

Reynolds is even thinking about getting a tattoo of the Robur teapot, which can be seen on a building on Lygon Street in Brunswick East. “I am very against corporate branding, but Robur is completely gone now; it isn’t going to exploit workers or say something disgusting about LGBTQ people,” he laughs. “They can’t disappoint me!”

Hunting for new ways to get a better view of signs can involve asking for entry to people’s businesses or homes. Like the “Newman’s have removed to 289 Collins Street” sign, which can partly be seen from Elizabeth Street in Melbourne; he got a great shot after explaining his quest to a nearby nail salon. While shooting an old warehouse in North Melbourne, he was invited by a stranger into their back yard to get a better view.

Melbourne ghost signs. story. Newmans have removed sign on the side of a building in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. Australia.
The ‘Newmans have removed to 289 Collins Street’ sign, on Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“Once I start talking to people about what I’m doing, everyone’s got a story,” he says. “‘Oh, I used to go to that shop and the guy who ran it had an eyepatch’, or ‘I loved that milk bar because they would always sell us cigarettes and we were underage’.

“I was recently taking photos of an old milk bar and so many people from the neighbourhood were coming up to me. One guy said, ‘That’s how my kids used to make friends, they’d get an icy pole and sit out on the curb.’ That kind of community centre is kind of gone now, which is sad.

“Documenting these things is a way for me to say, this is what was here – what we’ve made up for inconvenience, we’ve also lost in community.”


Sian Cain

The GuardianTramp

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