Demolition uncovers Mail Pouch ad

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A recent discovery might fill Carnegie's newest parking lot with more curiosity seekers than parkers.

The demolition last Thursday of two houses at 315 and 317 E. Main St. uncovered a faded, two-story-high Bloch Brothers Mail Pouch Tobacco ad painted on the side of a building. The ad had been hidden by one of the structures that was being torn down.

While it was a curiosity to passersby, it was great news to Lonnie Schnauffer, of Richland, president of the Mail Pouch Barnstormers Club.

"That's very exciting," said Mr. Schnauffer, whose club is dedicated to photographing, preserving and learning about Mail Pouch signs. "A lot of times, they're covered up for 50 years or longer."

Mr. Schnauffer called the ad "a hidden treasure" and headed to Carnegie on Monday night to see it. He found it "pretty, but not in good shape" because of fading.

The building's owner, Bob Miller, operates Flexitrol Lighting, a theatrical and performing arts lighting company, from the East Main Street building.

He hopes to clean the side of the building to showcase the ad and has already taken a paintbrush to a section of brick to dust off some grime over what he thinks may be a date. Access to the wall is limited, however, until the demolition work is finished.

The ad also has captivated Marcella McGrogan, president of the Historical Society of Carnegie, and local residents. Mrs. McGrogan planned to send over stone cleaners who were working on her building to get their thoughts on restoring the ad.

To Mr. Schnauffer, the sign is more than a remnant of Americana from the previous century. It is a symbol of "one of the most famous, biggest advertising campaigns ever," he said.

Brothers Aaron and Samuel Bloch started manufacturing stogies in Wheeling, W.Va., in 1879. Soon after, they came up with the idea of using the stogie wrapper clippings as a form of chewing tobacco, called West Virginia Mail Pouch.

The chew was a hit. In 1890, the Blochs began to advertise their product on the sides of businesses that sold it. By 1925, they had moved on to barn advertisements.

The company employed painters to paint the ads and touch them up periodically. Farmers were offered annual stipends, free tobacco or magazine subscriptions as compensation for the use of their buildings.

By the early 1960s, about 20,000 Mail Pouch barns were spread across 22 states. After a 1965 Highway Beautification Act restricted billboards along highways that were paid for with federal funds, the resulting public furor led to a 1974 act amendment in which the Mail Pouch barns were designated "folk heritage barns." Barn painting continued until 2000, when the last living Mail Pouch barn painter died.

Today, about 2,000 Mail Pouch barns still exist. Only one is believed to remain in Allegheny County -- in Pine.

Buildings carrying the Mail Pouch ads are becoming rarer, too. Two such structures are believed to be in the county. Mr. Schnauffer said the only restored brick building with a Mail Pouch sign that he has ever seen is in Dover, N.J.

"It's a red, old building and it's gorgeous," he said.

At the Mail Pouch Barnstormers annual picnic Saturday in Belmont, Ohio, Mr. Schnauffer plans to talk to painter Scott Hagan about ways to restore the Mail Pouch ad in Carnegie. The group has 150 members from 14 states.

Mail Pouch tobacco is still manufactured in Wheeling, though Bloch Brothers is now part of the Swisher International Group.

For more information about Mail Pouch advertising signs, visit this Web site:

Carole Gilbert Brown is a freelance writer.


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