Hyde Park author chronicles fading ads around Chicago

Joseph Marlin (Photo contributed)

Staff writer

Joseph Marlin’s love for taking photos of old ads painted on brick walls and other surfaces throughout Chicago has materialized as a book called “Fading Ads of Chicago” for all to see the gems he found.

Marlin was born in Indiana in what he called “a small town of about 700 people and 30 miles south of South Bend.” His family moved to Fort Wayne when he was old enough to go to grade school. After graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington, he came to Chicago in 1953 to do graduate work in the Social Science Division at the University of Chicago but switched to the school of Social Service Administration and earned a master’s degree.

For years, Marlin worked as a social worker in family counseling and child guidance clinics where he worked with children, adolescents and adults in individuals and couples therapy. Before retiring, he was the director of social work at Mount Sinai Hospital on the city’s West Side. This is where Marlin became interested in fading ads.

“When I worked on the West Side at Mount Sinai Hospital … that’s where I got interested,” Marlin said. “You would see ads on older buildings in older parts of town. I would make a list of them, when I was driving to work, I didn’t have time to stop, park and take a picture. I would gather a few, and I would go back when there was the least amount of car traffic or fewer pedestrians on the street so I could take a picture, usually on a Sunday morning.”

Marlin, who is on the board of the Hyde Park Historical Society, was particularly interested in products when he started taking photos of the ads and wanted to find out about them and the companies that owned them. Sometimes he would get lucky with finding out about businesses and their products by a simple google search, but other times he wasn’t as lucky — especially if they were a mom-and-pop-owned business.

Many of the signs were created between the late 1800s and early 1900s, but Marlin says that they are very hard to date unless you are an expert in lettering-styles used by graphic designers or commercial designers during certain decades. The ads can be found across the United States in large cities and small towns, there may be regional or neighborhood-specific signs, but they advertised products that people used every day.

Most of the images in Marlin’s book were taken in the late 1980s and ‘90s with 35mm color slides or prints from 35mm color negative film.

Marlin says that he is just an amateur, “Though I’ve written a couple of publications about hobby related things regarding cameras, I’m not really a writer. I’m not a professional photographer, these were taken as an amateur as part of a hobby. I never really thought of myself as a researcher but all of the information and text, I did myself by googling.

“This started without any intention for a book to result, I just did it as a hobby and found that other people were interested.”

“Fading Ads of Chicago” is divided into four sections, for ads that Marlin found in different locations in Chicago and ends with ads that he found on other surfaces like water tanks. There may be more fading ads in Chicago that Marlin has yet to uncover because they may be hidden by new buildings.