Ghost Sign of Mystery

Ghost Sign of Mystery
1831 N. Milwaukee Ave. today

While walking down Milwaukee Avenue in Bucktown, I happened across a vibrant partial ghost sign at 1831 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Given how bright the colors were, I could only assume that the sign was only recently revealed in the past few years.

What frustrated me, however, was that I could not tell what business the sign was advertising. The only legible sections I could definitely make out were the words "COMPLETE" and "66 W. MADISON ST." Of course, the way the sign was cut off, it could've been any for address ending in 66 on Madison Street.

I stewed about this sign for months until, while browsing Chicago ghost signs on Flickr a few weeks ago, I came across this photo from Nicole Donohoe, who cataloged dozens of ghost signs years ago for her master's degree in historic preservation. The photo, taken in 2008, was of the same ghost sign, but it was originally more exposed. In this photo, you can definitely read "Furnishes the HOME COMPLETE. 150-166 W. MADISON ST."

So, I had an address and a business type: Home furniture. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a business at this address after looking in the 1910 Chicago business directory, but it crossed my mind that maybe the address was from before Chicago changed their entire address system in 1909. So, I checked out the 1900 Chicago business directory and sure enough, I made the discovery.

1900 Chicago Business Directory listing

1900 Chicago Business Directory listing

The ghost sign, with the address dating it over a 100 years old, was for John M. Smyth Co., a long-time furniture store in Chicago. John M. Smyth began his furniture business on Madison Street in 1867. He moved down the street to this location in 1880 and, although the store burned down in 1891, he soon rebuilt a new store on the same land. Today, the Kennedy Expressway goes right through where his store was located. He was not only a notable businessman but an alderman and a member of the City Council. He died of pneumonia in 1909 and a Chicago Public School was named in his honor after his death.

The company remained in the family and, by the 1960s, had expanded stores into the suburbs. In 1983, the company closed its suburban stores and focused on warehouse showrooms. After three generations, the Smyth family finally sold the business in 1994 to Levitz Furniture of Boca Raton, Florida.

Many people, myself included, can still remember their commercial jingle. They closed their last stores in 2005 after nearly 140 years.

Advert in the 1923 Buyers Guide, with the ghost sign's tagline "Furnishes The Home Complete"

Advert in the 1923 Buyers Guide, with the ghost sign's tagline "Furnish The Home Complete"

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    Neil Arsenty

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