Looking for History

Still in Reading last Sunday. Lynn and Denise had driven us all over the city, and we had come to rest on Penn Street, the main drag of Center City Reading. We rounded a corner and I spotted this one right away: crumbling neon and gray, probably 50s or earlier. Lynn pulls the car over and we get out. It’s high up on the building and I half wonder if anyone notices it anymore. Zipf’s Candies, it says. The sun is hitting it square from the west at this time of day, so I wander over to the other side.


My mouth falls open. From the angle that I’m standing underneath the Zipf’s sign, I can see a ghost sign behind it.

Ghost signs, for the un-initiated, are the advertisements that were painted on brick that have (chances are) faded to the point that sometimes you can’t read them. They’re rare and good finds, but you hardly see them so close to another sign that you can get both in the same shot. So I couldn’t hit the shutter button fast enough:


The ghost sign says “Paper” and there’s some more of it visible if you step back a few feet.

When we got back to Denise and Lynn’s house, we started going through a set of books Lynn has that covers the history of Reading, mostly through old pictures. There are plenty of shots of Penn Street, so surely there would be one of this sign, wouldn’t there? We go through book after book. Plenty of shots of Penn Street, great shots of the Loew’s Theatre, many signs I wish were still around, but no Zipf’s. And here’s why: whoever took these shots (I’m guessing) worked in a building on the side of the street Zipf’s sits on, because each shot was taken from the same location.

I have no idea how old this sign is. Interestingly enough, some internet research has shown me that there is a Zipf’s Candies still operating in Philadelphia. They’ve been going since 1968, according to their website. No mention of Reading. And this sign looks older than ’68 to me. Anybody out there have any information?

A Sunday in Reading

Sometimes it’s planning. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Picture two people tooling about in a Hyundai on a Saturday in early spring along New Jersey 29, skirting along the Delaware, escaping the city for a brief and wonderful moment. That should be enough for anybody, really, but stupid me, I have this idea that I might find a sign or two to capture along the way.


Oh, we did spot a decent 50s number on the other side of the road that made us go back and forth trying to decide if it was really a good old one or a facsimile, but other than that, not a sausage. No lovely old diners. No old motels. Bupkes.Really, New Jersey? Really?

So even though we had a nice day, I couldn’t help feeling like it was a bit of a washout.

Late in the afternoon we get a call from our friends in Reading, Denise and Lynn. They just had their pastor and their family over to their house, and had grossly over-estimated the amount of food they needed to prepare, so would we mind coming over tomorrow. Lynn was aware of my affliction, and that, for some strange reason, even though we lived only a handful of miles away from that very city for three whole years, I had failed to explore Reading for old signs. We heartily agreed.

pagoda pagoda-below

First off, no trip to Reading is complete without visiting the Pagoda. Reading, sad to say, has very few reasons to visit, but this is a biggie. It was built in 1908 by a man named William Witman who had an eye toward creating a resort on top of Mount Penn. There’s even a temple bell on the top floor. Unfortunately, he failed to get a liquor license, fell on hard times, and had to sell the Pagoda to the city of Reading for the lofty sum of $1. More about it here

“It’s a shame,” my wife said, as we walked out the front door. “What this could have been if he didn’t sell it to the city.”

“Not to be contrary and put down private enterprise,” I replied, “but chances are, if he had continued on with his plans, this place would probably be a distant memory, one of those things you only see in old postcards.”

But on to the signs. In all, we found seven of them.

The first one I knew about. We used to pass by Schell’s, a 50s era restaurant, when we lived in the area. My sign fever had not yet reached its boiling point, but I remembered it well, and hoped that it was still there. Before we got to Denise and Lynn’s, I had passed through on old US 222 to see if Schell’s still had their sign.


Yep, not only there, but in great shape. Not only that, but I had forgotten about their ice cream shop next door, and the Schell’s sign on top of the restaurant.


But this was just the tip of the iceberg. There were plenty more signs to be had that afternoon, including one that I had never seen in any research on signs that I had ever done, none of us knew anything about, but it maybe my new favorite!

So planning helps, but improvisation can be your best friend. More from Reading to come…