Aspinwall painter revives iconic Mail Pouch tobacco ad on Ford City building

Thursday, October 3, 2019 | 6:20 PM


For weeks, artist Alison Zapata hung two stories above a Fourth Avenue building in Ford City, meticulously bringing the borough’s past to life.

The Aspinwall painter was commissioned to refurbish a “ghost sign” more than 100 years old that sprawls 40 feet wide.

The iconic Mail Pouch tobacco ad was revitalized in vibrant yellow and white block letters.

It will be unveiled during a public ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4. The building is at 910 Fourth Ave.

Zapata said she eagerly stepped into the shoes of a turn-of-the-20th-century artist to renew the damaged and weathered sign that is quickly becoming a focal point of the business corridor.

“It’s almost folk art because it’s part of an era when signs were hand-rendered,” said Zapata, 44, an art instructor at the PA Council on the Arts.

“I think it’s gorgeous. And the fact that it’s 100 years old, I was all over that.”

Project cost was about $5,600. It was led by Rob Watt, curator of the Armstrong County Historical Museum.

The original painting was discovered when an adjacent building burned down. Zapata said the artwork was preserved well enough to allow her to follow the original lines.

“It’s a source of pride for the community,” Watt said. “It definitely enhances the appeal of our downtown.”

Watt already has noticed an uptick of people walking by the building, gawking at the scale of the work.

Initially projected to take two weeks, Zapata said she underestimated the obstacle of eroded mortar between each brick. She had to enlist the help of two assistants, Kevin Kino and Christan Miller.

Even with the extra hands, work was extended by at least a week.

Watt said local businesses readily supported the project. He thanked Scott Zambotti of West Penn Pro Wash, who prepared the wall at no charge, and United Rentals, which provided the scissor lift for the painters.

“It’s such a part of the borough’s history,” Zapata said. “People come by and take pictures in front of it.”

The advertisement has strong roots in Western Pennsylvania history as well.

Mail Pouch tobacco was the subject of a unique campaign that began in the 1890s with ads painted on buildings, but largely on the sides of barns. The campaign ran until 1992.

At its peak in the 1960s, about 20,000 painted barns were scattered in 22 states, including many in the mid-Atlantic states.

In recent decades, many of the vintage signs have faded or been covered, or the buildings/barns have become dilapidated.

There has been an effort to save the once-ubiquitous piece of Americana, Zapata said, and she is “thrilled to be a part of it.”

“Just to have the opportunity to help usher a hand-painted relic from the past into the present and to give honor to that aspect of American history,” she said.

Tyson Klukan, Ford City Council vice president, said the restoration complements the borough’s new comprehensive plan, which calls for a focus on arts and culture.

“It has been exciting to watch a sign that was covered come back to life,” Klukan said.