Saturday, 13 February 2016 21:04

Collecting Vintage Signs

Written by Written by Lorne VanSinclair, originally published in the Orillia Packet & Times

Signs help us find our way around; they inform us, annoy us, decorate and pollute the landscape. They are so ubiquitous we often don’t pay any attention to them but our perception of them changes with time.

Advertising signs are designed to catch your attention and a large, gaudy one may be considered an eyesore when it first appears. If it stays around a while it becomes a landmark, in a few more years when it’s worn out and no further use, the owner is told it’s a part of our history that must be preserved at all costs.

One thing for sure, collectors love old signs and old advertising in general, it’s one of the few areas of collecting where the market remains strong. The appeal is obvious; signs (small ones at least) are easy to display, the graphics can be breathtaking and there is the nostalgic appeal of something that used to be taken for granted but now is disappearing. What signs say, their graphics and the way they were made are all intricately woven into our industrial, commercial and social history.

The most popular collectable signs are porcelain or enameled. Known for their durability and bright colours they were once almost everywhere but gradually disappeared from the landscape when cheaper alternatives came along in the 1960s.

Not to be confused with tin signs that are painted or lithographed, what we call porcelain signs are actually made from many layers of powdered glass fused onto an iron plate, each layer being a different colour. The process was developed in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century and was used mostly for making kitchen utensils. In 1857 British entrepreneur Benjamin Baugh travelled to Germany to see how it was done and returned to Britain to start a plant there making all sorts of products. The sign portion of the business was so successful that in 1889 he opened the first plant dedicated solely to making enameled signs. The Patent Enamel Company in Birmingham was a massive operation with its own railroad line and canal branch, two furnaces for making iron plates and twelve for fusing the enamel. Before long similar plants were established all over Europe servicing the ever-expanding railroads, telephone companies and services born of the Industrial Revolution.

Porcelain sign making didn’t get going in North America until a few years later and the first manufacturers had to recruit craftsmen from Europe. By the 1920s porcelain signs were being stuck up almost anywhere there was a chance they could be seen. The emerging auto industry was a prime customer as well as the hundreds of consumer products that were becoming available, especially soft drinks and cigarettes. Modern collectors divide the hobby into two areas of interest; Automotive, or anything related to cars and petroleum, and what’s called Country Store, which is everything else.

With our car-crazed society, automotive signs command the highest prices but country store is still pretty big, especially things like push bars and door plates that were both practical and used for advertising in just about every store.

There were hundreds of thousands of items made in the heyday of porcelain sign making. One collector has posted a list of about 50 companies active in North America in the first half of the last century, including Porcelain and Metal Products of Orillia, a major manufacturer of street signs and advertising (as well as more mundane products) from 1940 to 1973. P&M as they were called operated out of what is now our city hall at Colborne and Andrew Streets. Push bars and ashtrays made by P&M command a premium price around these parts.

Some porcelain sign makers are still in operation, usually making run-of-the-mill street signs but some also make reproduction advertising signs so the inexperienced collector has to beware. Most reproductions are clearly marked and not intended to deceive but it is best to be educated before you spend big bucks on what appears to be a vintage sign. One way to tell is just feel the surface. Older signs had a separate layer and firing for each colour which created bumps, called shelving, between the layers. Newer reproductions use modern methods which do all the colours at once so there’s no shelving.

Although there were countless porcelain signs manufactured they are hard to find today. Many were melted down for the war effort in the 1940s, others were used for target practice and of course, collectors have been taking them down since the 1970s when the hobby became popular. The first wave of collectors were just grabbing what was often considered junk but now it is a major business; a rare, desirable sign can cost you as much as a new car.

Another kind of popular advertising sign is even harder to find and collect. It’s difficult to imagine now but not so long ago most commercial signs were hand painted. Hand painted signs adorned storefronts, window panes, billboards and even vehicles because that was the only way to do it until the 1970s. Sign painters were not just skilled at drawing; they acted as the marketing director, artist and contractor for a client. Many of the iconic logos we still see today, such as Coca-Cola and Ford, were designed not by advertising agencies but by sign painters, they were that important to the industry. Many of the top painters were highly trained professionals but others were self-taught; mastering a few fonts, called ‘alphabets’ in the trade, and learning design principles either from a book or another sign painter. They all made unique signs that many now consider works of either fine art or folk art.

The sign business completely changed in the late 1970s with the advent of cheap vinyl plotters, machines that could cut out vinyl letters or any other design programmed into a computer. Now almost anybody could make a serviceable sign and the old-school painters had to either change their ways or retire. It was more efficient but signs themselves became bland, utilitarian conveyers of information, and often badly designed. In the old way, the design of the letters said as much as the words.

There has been a renewed interest in hand painted signs lately, part of the whole artisan movement, and the custom sign business has revived somewhat. U.S. documentary filmmakers Faythe Levine and Sam Macon recently produced a documentary called Sign Painters, paying tribute to what was once a thriving industry and is now what they call an underground trade. (It’s available at www.signpaintersfilm.com). In an article in Collectors’ Weekly, Levine points out that the modern artisan sign painter is not necessarily a technology-rejecting Luddite, most use a computer to aid in the design but the finished product is drawn by hand using skills that take years to master.

For our own sign at Carousel Collectables we got a real, aluminum carousel horse and had it restored and hand pained by local artist Ron Schell but for the other 50 feet of space we used more affordable vinyl, cut-out letters mounted on hand-cut wood. The combination works well.

The difficulty in collecting the old signs is that many were very large and painted directly on a building or barn. For those, we are thankful for photographers who capture them before they rot away or are torn down. Collectors can acquire signs that were painted on pieces of cardboard, wood or tin and while they are not yet as highly prized as porcelain signs, there is a growing interest and appreciation of the artistry, so it’s a good place to start a collection.