From celebrated tool companies like Stanley to paint producers such as Benjamin Moore and Pittsburgh, building-products manufacturers created signs for hardware stores for most of the 20th century. While the majority of these building signs were made for products like paint and cement, other seemingly marginal materials such as insulation and door frames were advertised with equal enthusiasm on equally beautiful porcelain signs.
Signs for smaller companies like Trinity Cement sometimes featured maps to help potential customers get to their locations. Bigger brands like Keen Kutter simply relied on their recognizable logo or typeface. Others used clever mnemonic devices, such as Kuhn’s Paints, whose logo included a sneaky raccoon to subtly remind customers of its brand’s name.
Possibly the most familiar building sign is the ubiquitous Sherman Williams Paint logo, with an upturned “SWP” can pouring a healthy coat of bright red paint onto a blue globe, marked with the slogan “Cover the Earth.” First used in 1893, the familiar phrase was clearly coined in an age when environmental protection was not at the forefront of most customers’ minds. Dutch Boy paint signs from the 1920s date themselves by bragging about the paint’s primary ingredient, white lead, now known to cause damage to the brain and the central nervous system. “A quick-mixing pure white-lead for all painting,” read their signage, featuring a smiling blonde-headed boy in a cap, blue overalls, and wooden clogs.
Colorful signs helped prove a paint company’s worth, and many incorporated a range of bright shades to emphasize their wide selection, like the rainbow bedecked Murphy Paints signs. A particularly elaborate Pittsburgh Paints sign from the 1930s even featured a row of lighted circles representing its available bright colors.
The most common names on collectible building and paint signs include Sherwin-Williams, Dutch Boy, Pittsburgh Paints, Chief, Keen Kutter, Benjamin Moore, and Lowe Brothers. However, endless forgotten companies like Duplate Glass and Galt Shingles also had their names permanently affixed to hardware signs. Still, some of the cleverest construction signs aren’t for companies at all, but rather feature “wet paint” or “DANGER” warnings, using sometimes comical images of people or animals to illuminate their cautionary messages.