Cardboard signs were widely used in the 20th century to advertise everything from beer and soda pop to patent medicines and cigars. The material was especially popular for signage during World War II, when the heavy metal used in porcelain signs and the lighter tin used in lithographed signs were rationed for the war effort.
Even before the war, the appeal of cardboard was obvious. Cardboard signs were cheap to produce and easy to put up. Some were even produced as stand-ups, which could be propped in the corner of a store or at the end of an aisle. And when the signs wore out due to weather, or went out of date as advertising campaigns were updated, they could simply be tossed. In fact, it’s the ephemeral nature of these pieces that makes them so collectible today.
Advertisements for patent medicines found their way onto many cardboard signs. Hood’s Sarsaparilla, prospective customers were told, would purify the blood, and 100 doses only cost a dollar. The fetching backside of a naked woman was the dominant image in an ad for Rex Bitters, which promised to cure indigestion and constipation. Not to be outdone, Dr. Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin claimed to be the “Family Laxative” for the “Constipated Child.”
More wholesome was the image of three sunbonnetted little girls, who were used to sell “Rock, Rye and Honey: For Coughs and Colds.” The scenes behind ads for American Beauty Malt Extract and B.T. Babbitt’s Soap were equally innocuous. And then there were cardboard signs that both identified the cause of an ailment and its cure, such as the ad for Moxie Nerve Food, which placed the words “The Leading Exponent of the Strenuous Life” below the stern image of Teddy Roosevelt and “The Necessary Support of the Strenuous Life” below an image of its product.
Cardboard signs were also produced for food products such as Best Baking Company’s Milk Bread, Lipton’s Tea, and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum. Brewers that made beer signs out of cardboard included Anheuser-Busch, Magnus Beck, and Lone Star Brewing. And, naturally, cardboard tobacco signs were common, such as those for Beech-Nut Tobacco, Lucky Strike and Philip Morris cigarettes, and Cubanola cigars.
For Coca-Cola collectors, cardboard signs advertising their favorite frosty beverage, especially those from the 1940s and early 1950s, are highly prized. “Here’s to our G.I. Joes,” reads one Coke sign of two young women pointing to the locations of their boyfriends (or husbands) on a globe. “A Big O.K. From U.S.A.,” proclaimed a sign for Pepsi, all in red, white, and blue.
Of course, because cardboard was cheap, it was also used to advertise events, particularly dances and musical performances by jazz and pop artists of the day. Following this musical lead, record companies produced portraits of their stars meant to be displayed in record stores, in the hopes that such photos would help move vinyl.