Before social media brand partnerships and content creator sponsorships, businesses marketed themselves through colorful signage that they posted above their shops. The purpose of these antique metal signs was to attract people's eyes and encourage them to stop by the stores. Today, their attraction still applies to the dedicated collectors who hunt down these old artifacts. Check out how this type of advertising got its start and see what types of signs people search for today.
Business Advertisements Throughout History
It might seem surprising, but signage that was created specifically to advertise has been used since antiquity. By the late-Medieval period, signage erupted as a competitive maneuver for the rising merchant class to distinguish their businesses amongst their competitors. Since most people weren't literate until more recent years, wooden signage was also made in the discernable shape of a business' service such as a pair of boots being used to represent a cobbler's shop.
By the Victorian era, signage had become an art form, being made out of enamel, iron, and tin and showing off the beautiful typography, eye-catching colors, and illustrations of the period. These iconic banner signs continued to be produced up until the mid-century, when other forms of advertisement were more in vogue.
Types of Antique and Vintage Sign
Typically, you're going to find more vintage signs on the market than antique signs given that these late 19th century and early 20th century signs were melted down during World War II for the war effort. Since of all of these signs were created with an advertising purpose in mind, there's a multitude of different businesses and companies that you'll find metal signs for. Some of the more popular categories include:
- Soda companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi
- Oil companies like Gulf or Texaco
- Motorcycle and automotive brands like Harley Davidson and Goodyear
- Specialty businesses like pharmacists, barbers, and so on.
Antique and Vintage Signs' Materials
The types of metals that were used to make these advertising signs changed over time, as certain materials became scarce or more expensive to produce. Early metal signage was usually cast iron or steel, with porcelain enamel cast over top to create its richly pigmented appearance. As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th, the steel eventually switched to tin - a much cheaper, easier to produce metal than steel or iron. This cost-effective alternative allowed for companies to produce thousands of these signs for very low costs and this cost effectiveness is partly the reason why vintage metal signs have become such an iconic figment of Americana.
Antique and Vintage Sign Values
Interestingly, age isn't a dominating factor in determining an antique or vintage sign's value. Rather, collectors are more focused on things like a sign's brand, size, and condition. According to Manifest Auctions, the most valuable signs will be about 30" to 42" in size because those are easily readable from a distance. Similarly, signs from iconic brands are going to be worth more than obscure brands since a portion of collectors are loyal to specific brands. Likewise, these prices wildly vary, and are highly dependent on customer demand. For example, a large and vibrant advertising sign circa 1880 is listed in once auction for $6,500, and a similar French Bistro Café sign is listed for $5,000 in another. However, these describe some of the most expensive signage you can come across; most vintage metal signs will cost you between $500-$1,000.
Visit the American Sign Museum
If you can't get enough of these beautiful signs and you happen to be stateside, take a trip to Cincinnati, Ohio, where the American Sign Museum is located. Their collections encompass 20,000 feet of indoor space and includes pieces from the 1880s through today. The museum's website explains that they are "the premier institution for preserving historic signs and promoting the contributions the sign industry makes to commerce, culture, and the American landscape." Even if you can't make it to the museum itself, their digital collections lets you access a portion of their catalog for free, so you can take a gander at the designs of yore.
It's a Sign of the Times
Antique and vintage metal signs give you a brief glimpse into the past, when chewing gum cost a nickel a pack and a steak cost $5. Something about these signs can lull you in with a sense of nostalgia for a time you maybe never knew; either way, the innumerable reproduction companies out there who create their own novelty signs in this style stand as a testament to how much these signs mean to people and that they're more than just a decoration to hang on the wall, rather, they're truly a sign of the times.