Vintage advertising signs
Vintage advertising signs are collectible signs of tin, porcelain, glass and neon, designed to promote brands and products. They may have been produced to advertise drinks, food, tobacco, gasoline, beauty products, medicine and other commodities.
In the early days of advertising, sharp-witted businesses recognised the value of displaying their brand in public places, to expand awareness of their name and product.
One of the earliest methods of doing this was to create signs, to hang in shops, bars, and at public events, and large scale to sit atop or on the face of buildings.
The earliest signs were made from the cheapest and most everyday material to hand, generally wood. Later they were manufactured out of longer-lasting materials such as porcelain and glass, and as businesses expanded, were mass produced on a large scale.
In the early 1900s, the widespread use of electricity allowed for the advent of signs that lit up so they could be seen at night as well as in the daytime, some of the most popular of which were neon signs.
As time went on, paper posters replaced advertising signs within shops and bars, as they were cheaper to produce. To some extent, large building sized signs have been replaced with paper billboards. However many companies choose to display large signs that promote them on the buildings they inhabit.
Antique & vintage advertising signs are a popular among collectors, and have become more so in recent years when a nostalgic love of vintage advertising has become fashionable.
Original signs can be found on eBay, in second hand stores, at car boot sales, garage sales and flea markets, as well as at many auction houses. Look for Advertising Memorabilia auctions in particular, or those focused on petroliana, automobilia, tobacciana or breweriana collectibles. For example, Morphy Auctions hold regular sales of advertising collectibles.
There is a huge market in reproduction advertising signs as part of the fashionable vintage movement, particularly tin examples. Ensure that each item is genuine and dates from when it is supposed to. Be suspicious of anything that has little or no wear, and also if a seller is offering several examples of the same sign.
While many reproduction signs will admit to being simply a reverent imitation, some fraudsters are attempting to fool buyers by using chemical aging techniques and distressing signs with smoke and chemicals. There are clues as to whether a sign has aged genuinely, and familiarity with how signs should look is invaluable.
For example, there will never be two antique hand-lettered signs alike. There will always be subtle differences in the letters. They will have visible brushstroke in places, and a raised and uneven feel. They were generally a standard size. The colours will have faded at different rates.
The condition of a sign has a great effect on its value. In general, the better the condition the higher the price.
The war years took a heavy toll on advertising signs. Those produced prior to World War II that were not melted down for their metal are rare and valuable, anything from the early 1900s to the early 1940s. Thus a 1930s sign in a bad condition will still be valuable and collectible.
Generally, collectors of signs choose to focus on one advertising brand or company, one era, or one industry of advertising memorabilia such as petroliana signs or breweriana signs specifically. This may be a good place to start when beginning a collection, and help to narrow down the field of what to look for.
Types of vintage signs
Vintage wooden signs
The earliest businesses were often starting by a single entrepreneur, who set up on their own. They would hand-make and hand-paint signs advertising their products to place in their own shops, or in other areas where their products were being sold. The cheapest and most readily available material was wood.
Wood however, was very susceptible to ravages of time and weather. Surviving examples of wooden advertisements in good condition are therefore extremely rare.
Vintage porcelain signs
Porcelain signs began to be manufactured in Europe in the 19th century, and the United States by the 1890s. They were made by fusing powdered glass onto rolled iron. Colours would then be stencilled on and fired to create different layers. As time went on, silkscreened designs and steel replaced this method.
Porcelain signs were durable and weather resistant, so perfect for displaying outdoors. However, it is rare to find them in original condition nowadays, and they can fetch high prices at auction.
Vintage tin signs
In the 1900s, porcelain signs became too costly in both materials and labour to produce on a large scale for companies that had expanded across cities and states. Companies started using the cheaper alternative of tin.
Tin signs were easy to manufacture, and used enamel colours.
Examples from the 1920s are a favourite with collectors, many employing Art Deco design and other popular styles of the era.
However, during World War II the metals required for the war effort demanded that most tin signs should be melted down, and so many pre-war examples were lost forever. Pre-war tin signs are therefore extremely valuable.
Tin signs had a resurgence in the 1950s, and these post-war examples are much more common.
They are susceptible to rust if not kept in the right environmental conditions.
Vintage neon signs
Neon advertising signs were invented in France in the early 1900s. They were first displayed by the French inventor Georges Claude at the Paris Motor Show in 1910, and quickly became popular around the world (particularly in the United States). They began to be used by many companies to advertise during the 1920s.
Neon signs are made up of electrified, luminous tube lights containing gasses such as Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton and Xenon. These gasses cause a electrical glow discharge when a current is applied to the gas, giving the neon signs their various colours depending on the particular gasses used. Vintage models are those manufactured from the 1920s up until the 1970s.
The 1950s was the heyday of neon signs, and neon became an iconic staple of America, with cities like Las Vegas lit up by neon signage all night long.
Vintage neon signs are now both highly collectible and highly valuable, and many U.S organisations are now seeking to preserve and restore vintage examples of neon signs across the country as sites of cultural heritage.
- Large scale Cadillac neon sign from Texas dealership, sold for $100,000 at RM Auctions in 2008.
- 1930s Coca-Cola neon building sign, sold for $50,000 at Richard Opfer Auctioneering in 2012.
- Campbell’s Soup embossed tin sign, sold for $45,000 at Showtime Auction Services in 2013.