Ghost of advertising past

Port Richmond real estate business owner discovers tobacco company sign painted on brick wall

Billboard from the past: Ryan Straub discovered a Bloch Bro’s Tobacco Company sign spanning the entire brick wall on one side of the property at 2979 Edgemont St. including the master bedroom. MELISSA KOMAR / STAR PHOTO

By Melissa Komar

If the walls at 2979 Edgemont St. could talk, they would tell of a time when billboards didn’t exist and the sides of houses served as advertising space.

Ryan Straub, owner and broker at Neighborhood Real Estate in Port Richmond, bought the property in 2016 and rented it out until the tenant moved out on Feb. 1.

Two weeks later, Straub decided to touch it up for resale and a worker noticed a hole in the wall with something more than brick behind it.

Behind the sheet rock wall and installation were the bold, white letters of a Bloch Bro’s Chew and Smoke Mail Pouch Tobacco sign, complete with the company’s logo.

“He sent me a picture and I said, ‘Oh my God, just keep going, just go down the hallway, go downstairs. It has to be the whole side of the house,” Straub said, “And, literally within three hours, everything was exposed and that tells me the previous owner, whatever he did and renovated, that this was here just like this and he just sheet rocked on top of it.”

Based in Wheeling, West Virginia, the company was known for its mail pouch chewing tobacco, the exact type advertised on the brick wall on Edgemont Street. The company hired barn painter Harley Warrick, and in 1925, he began painting the advertisement on more than 20,000 barns in the Ohio River Valley.

Straub has been trying to dig up history on the wall, but has come to some conclusions in the meantime.

“The properties to the left of this were built first and this one was the end of the row,” Straub said. “And, this was just a temporary billboard on the side of the wall to sell tobacco products This is a billboard. So, if there were no houses from here all the way to Ann, you’d be able to read the whole thing. It’s a billboard of about 20 feet tall and 40 feet long.”

Public records indicate the property was built in 1921, according to Straub, and now sits sandwiched in between two other row houses in the middle of the block.

Straub hypothesized that the houses to the right were a second phase or different developer, the houses being a couple feet shorter and built with different bricks.

“This was definitely a billboard,” Straub said. “And, I think it’s just so unique. Like a Picasso piece, there’s only a couple of them. And, this is one of a kind.”

Straub did some research on the company, too.

“In the 1900s, every barn in Ohio had this on the side and then they started doing brick structures,” Straub said. “So, it’s like a corner store selling Marlboro. This is Bloch Brothers Tobacco. And it was sold at a store on Eighth Street.”

The “Eighth Street” emblem is visible behind the light switch fixture at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor.

The rest of the advertisement on the Edgemont Street brick wall is visible from the front door up to the door of the back bedroom and on an entire wall in the front bedroom.

Parts of it are covered by wall, including the closet in the hallway upstairs and the kitchen, which Straub does not plan to expose. And, some of the paint appears to have been removed in the living room.

Straub does not plan to alter the painting on the wall in any way, but hopes to collect more history on it to present as a gift to the future homeowner.

“So, it’s not someone who was alive when it was painted, maybe it’s someone who was 70 or 80 who might have some old photos laying around,” he said. “I don’t think it would be in public records anywhere. I’m just hoping by chance some old photos pop up.”

If the history remains buried, Straub is still excited to have made the discovery.

“I started doing my own rehabs within the past year and I’ve exposed about five or six walls, and they were all normal,” he said. “I’ve been in the business since 2004 and I’ve sold hundreds of houses. If I painted this on myself, someone would think, ‘Why the hell did he paint that on the wall?’ but because it’s almost a hundred years old and it’s natural, this is beautiful. It’s like a work of art.”

Anyone with information on the Bloch Bro’s Tobacco Company advertisement on Edgemont Street can email forsale@nrephilly.com.