According to a recent article in the The New York Times, ghost is “a word more commonly associated with Casper, the boy who saw dead people and a 1990 movie starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze.” But in recent years, the once-respected newspaper explains, the word “has also come to be used as a verb that refers to ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out.” This unfortunate trend in modern dating is not the only verb form of ghost. Alternative definitions of ghosting pertain to identity theft, distorted broadcast television signals, and even classified detention of enemy combatants.

For our purposes, there is a more pressing sort of ghosting to discuss: the appearance of an unintended image as a result of an error in commercial printing. This type of print ghost is like the evil twin of the the fine art printmaker’s print ghost. Unlike a secondary impression from a matrix taken for creative purposes, this ghost is not a willful cognate, but a mistake. The commercial printer treats it accordingly, as a problem to be eliminated.

Ghost overprint cards

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While there is no intentionality behind this type of printing defect, the results are mysterious, even beautiful. This is perhaps why the defective print is so highly prized by collectors of printed ephemera like these antique tobacco baseball cards:

ghost baseball card

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ghost baseball card 2

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ghost museum

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These “cigarette cards” in particular were thought of as disposable and were frequently misprinted in a variety of ways, so the specific cause of ghost impressions can be difficult to trace. Perhaps it’s a simple offset of wet ink onto paper, but isn’t it more evocative to presume that Honus Wagner haunts us from beyond the grave?

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