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Star Saloon: Wall signs teach commercial archeology

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 7, 2013 - Old Pattison Whisky was hidden away for 111 years. But in another example of a beautiful old sign suddenly revealed, this west-facing brick wall in the 4100 block of Folsom Avenue in near-South St. Louis was exposed in June 2011, when the adjoining building collapsed. Don Bonnell, who owns both buildings plus a third connected structure that holds a machine company, explains that the sign had to be painted prior to 1900 because the building bearing the sign was built in 1895 while the adjoining tumble-down building dates to 1899.

This four-year window coincides with the short-lived commercial history of Pattison's Limited of Edinburgh, Scotland, a distillery, which incorporated in 1896 and went bankrupt in 1898. The company spent a veritable fortune on advertising— 60,000 pounds in1898 (4.3 million pounds today) — and, indeed, that was a factor in its demise. Yet, a century later, here in a Midwestern city, its legacy lives on. 

For several months after the building collapsed, the damage remained largely untouched — the facade folding in upon itself; the roof jutting earthward, giving in to gravity. Broad, yellow crime scene tape surrounded the condemned building, fastened to anything upright. Bonnell said he had paid a contractor to tear down the derelict structure and haul away the debris. But the contractor was busy on another job and promised he would get to it when he could. He finally got to it … the following year.

Between the building collapse and complete unveiling of the old wall, what could be seen of the original sign was tantalizing. At far left, large letters start to spell out “Old Pa—” The line below starts with the letter “W.” Letters are white on a field of dark green. With so little of the sign visible, how why assume it is an ad for Old Pattison Whisky? Because the other side, the east-facing wall, of this very building once bore the exact same sign. Bonnell says he admired that one, too; then he painted his own sign over it.

Entirely legible at the top of this building, above the obscured whiskey sign, is the name of the business that once flourished here: Star Saloon & Cafe. It makes sense to paint a whiskey ad on the side of a saloon, especially a busy one. That saloon was across the street from the old Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co., a sprawling factory complex occupying several blocks. It shuttered after a major fire in the late 1970s, but while it operated, it's a safe bet that the Star Saloon & Cafe was busy day and night.

In fact, the name of the saloon is a nod to one of Liggett & Myers' most popular products, Star Chewing Tobacco [not to be confused with Starr Chewing Tobacco]. And just up the street, one block to the west from the old Star Saloon & Café, is a large, west-facing wall sign exhorting passersby to “Chew Star Tobacco.” The slogan beneath reads “Leading Brand Of The _____ .” Alas, the missing word is covered by sheet metal and other large objects.

However, I can be pretty certain that the boast is “Leading Brand Of The World.” A vintage Star Tobacco pouch features not only this proud slogan but the caption “Men who Chew are Men who DO.” With a skyscraper poking up through Gotham's metropolis as a backdrop, it goes on to say, “Look at Woolworth's, New York, the world's tallest building. Each of its fifty-one stories was a 'job' that required clear thinking, accurate action. And the majority of the men engaged in the work were tobacco chewers. STAR is the great American tobacco — made just right to suit the American taste.” (From 1913 to 1930, the Woolworth Building was ranked the world's tallest building.)

These signs and the few scattered buildings that remain on this section of Folsom Avenue are reminders of a more vibrant time.

Then, one day in February 2012, Don Bonnell called to say the contractor and his crew were removing the derelict building. At last, the wall sign would be revealed.

The sign company that did the job gave itself a modest plug. Along the bottom, barely discernible, one can read: American Advertising & Bill Posting.

With the wall exposed, elements will have their way with it. Graffiti artists — vandals — will see it as something to be enhanced — violated. Birds will crap on it and Old Sol will bake it onto the surface. Despite all this, motorists, pedestrians and neighbors will take notice. When did that show up? they may wonder. Who's behind it? Indeed, the answer would likely surprise them. The sign is the result of a marketing plan hatched in the mahogany-paneled office of Robert P. Pattison, president of a long-defunct distillery that operated in late-19th century Scotland.

Wm Stage is the author of two books on wall signs -- "Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America" and "The Painted Ad: A Postcard Book of Vintage Brick Wall Signs" with Margaret Stage -- and has a new book coming out in late spring, "The Fading Ads of St. Louis" (The History Press, Charleston, S.C.)