In a March 2022 article, Collectibles Insurance Services reported that vintage advertising signage is the second most desired collectible today, behind vintage records. Vintage signage can be found advertising everything from soda to cigarettes and farm implements.
Before digital advertising, billboards, social media, and neon signage, business owners used large, colorful signs on the outside of their establishments to attract the attention of customers, market the business, and increase brand awareness. Some enterprising shop owners even convinced farmers to put signage on the sides of barns to advertise the business to passerbys.
The earliest signs were often made of wood and oftentimes in a shape that would help distinguish a business. A shoe for a cobbler or striped pole for a barber,, for example. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s to early 1900s that signage took on an artistic flair with beautiful typography used on enamel, iron, and tin. Unfortunately, many of the signs made during the late 19th Century and mid 20th Century were lost to the war effort as they were melted down during World War II.
Those not lost to the war effort are typically cast iron or steel, with enamel over the top. As steel became more expensive, shop owners turned to tin to reduce the cost. Most of the vintage metal signs you will find on the market today are made of tin. To test the authenticity of a sign, one method is to use a magnet. A magnet will stick to a cast iron, steel or tin sign. If it does not stick, it is likely a coated aluminum reproduction sign.
As processes became more sophisticated in the late 19th Century, manufacturers were able to trim, stamp, and apply lithographs to tin sheets. This opened a whole new world of artistic expression and signage with colorful and vibrant imagery was developed for an array of products from cosmetics to tobacco.
Porcelain signs made their way to the United States from Germany in late 1890. The signs are actually porcelain enamel, with a base of heavy rolled iron onto which enamel is fused layer by layer. The colored enamel was applied to a white powdered-glass base of a sign using a stencil. These are highly collectible. A large vintage porcelain enamel advertising sign retails for $1,600 to $3,000.
At the turn of the Century, American manufacturers developed a more refined process for vitreous enameling and one of the most prolific manufacturers was located in Nashville, Tennessee. Tennessee Enameling produced porcelain signs for Coca-Cola and other brands.
The first neon sign made its way onto the scene in 1912, but due to the cost to manufacture, they were limited. It wasn’t until the 1940s-1950s that custom signs for restaurants, bars, automobile dealers, and hotels became prevalent.
What makes a vintage sign valuable? First, it is anything that is pre-World War II porcelain-enamel. Ironically, for signage it is not just age that determines value. Content is king, meaning that collectors are attracted to iconic brands. Larger signs over 30” are highly sought after, and then condition - including vibrancy of the art - drives value.
What brands are collectors seeking most? The highest prized are anything automobilia and petroliana such as Mobile Oil or Sinclair Oil. A vintage neon winged Pegasus Mobil Oil sign recently sold at auction for $70,000. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and old-school beer signs for Hamm’s, Budweiser, and Schlitz are popular. A 1940s Coca-Cola flange button sign is currently listed on eBay for $12,000 while a vintage Budweiser sign is selling from $250 to $1,000. Farm implement dealers John Deere and International Harvester and animated novelty signs for businesses sell well. A vintage Pure Oil porcelain sign with animated neon is selling for $9,900 on eBay.A 1925 John Deere porcelain sign is currently listed for $5,150, while IH signs are available from $200-$500.