Antique and vintage signs are highly sought after by collectors for their beauty, enduring historic value, and because they make great discussion pieces. Used to advertise everything from soda to farm equipment to household appliances, key genres include wood, porcelain (aka enamel), tin, and neon.
Porcelain enamel signs were first produced in Europe in the late 1800s, and became popular in the U.S. in the 1890s. Porcelain signs were made of powdered glass fused onto rolled iron. Different colors were stenciled on and fired, creating a different layer for each color; although later porcelain signs were silkscreened. Porcelain signs were durable and able to withstand exposure to the elements, so tens of thousands were made. But during the World War II scrap drives, many were melted down. Eventually high labor costs caused porcelain signs to fall out of favor in the 1950s.
Tin signs were also melted in WWII scrap drives, halting production almost permanently. Although some tin signs were made after the war, their reemergence was short lived. Tin signs reached their peak of popularity in the 1920s and were usually painted, screenprinted, or stamped. But they were not as durable as porcelain signs, and were prone to rust.
The first neon sign was introduced in 1912, for a Parisian barber. Neon signs contain tubes filled with neon or inert gasses that glow when a high voltage is applied. Though popular in the 1920s and 1930s, they were expensive to make and very fragile. In the 1940s and '50s, custom-made neon signs were produced in small quantities for businesses like restaurants, clubs, bars, hotels, and auto dealerships. More modern mass-produced neon signs for companies like Budweiser and Coca-Cola can also be collectible.
Some collectors also seek out vintage cardboard signs, which were popular in the mid-20th century and were used to advertise a broad range of consumer items (soda, beer, candy, etc.) and upcoming events, like the circus. Other sign formats, like and door pushes and pulls, are highly sought after as well.
Although some collectors focus exclusively on signs, many pursue the hobby as an adjunct to another collecting interest. Therefore antique and vintage signs related to these areas are in high demand, like automobile, oil and gas, travel, farm, food, smoking, beer, and railroad signs. Signs from the west coast are in especially high demand.
With antique and vintage signs, condition, visual appeal, and scarcity are important influences on value. Many signs have bullet holes from being shot at or rust or crazing from exposure to the elements. Do your homework before buying - many reproductions have been made and many signs have been restored.
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Recent News: Signs
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Copal Grill neon sign resurfaces on CraigslistCharlotte Observer, August 29th
The city's fast-paced redevelopment has resulted in public tugs of war over several other vintage signs in recent years. Among the success stories: The JFG Coffee sign (dating to 1964), which was removed from the Interstate 277 loop in 2009 and later ...Read more
Call Box: Cola sign painted on restaurant building has residents intriguedFlorida Times-Union, August 28th
Dear C.D.: The vintage sign on Orsay's red brick wall has captured a lot of attention since it was brought to light when Yesterday's bar was razed this year. The sign also features a stylized painting of a woman from a bygone era, her waist-length...Read more
Harold LeMay to be celebrated in Tacoma, Spanaway this weekendTheNewsTribune.com, August 27th
The Marymount event will feature a two-day auction containing 150 lots, among which bidders will find, according to its list, “Pepsi Cola Vintage Sign with Thermometer,” “1984 Porsche 944,” “1977 Ferrari 308 GTS,” “1939 Rolls Royce,” “Collection of ...Read more
The Picker Knows moves into old Dahl's storeDesMoinesRegister.com, August 24th
The shop has 300 vendors selling antique furniture, artwork, glassware, vintage signs and jewelry. It can hold up to 400 vendors, Cross said. Weekly auctions will be held in the 6,000-square-foot auction space inside the shop. The Picker Knows also is ...Read more
ONLY IN LB: Bad Yard Sale Sign Collection GrowsGazette Newspapers, August 18th
Kevin Modesti saw an electronic freeway sign on the 134 near Griffith Park that was supposed to say: “Striper ahead.” But, “it had an extra P,” reported Modesti, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles News Group, which includes the Grunion Gazette. Or...Read more
The story behind the video 'Richmond Vintage Signs'Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 13th
she just didn't know she'd found something so many other people would treasure. But Wednesday night, Ogle stayed up late and watched a clip of her father's old home movies go viral on Facebook as a video entitled “Richmond Vintage Signs” garnered a ...Read more
Orpheum wins approval to restore vintage signMadison.com, July 20th
The Madison Landmarks Commission on Monday approved the restoration of the Orpheum Theater sign, right, to its original 1926 design, left, featuring point lights along the perimeter and within individual letters. The $200,000 restoration could begin...Read more
Vintage sign removed for rebranding of Fagiani's bar siteNapa Valley Register, July 8th
Three years ago, on a July night, the neon sign at Fagiani's bar was lit for the first time in decades in advance of the opening of Fagiani's Bar at The Thomas Restaurant. On Wednesday morning the sign came down permanently as part of the restaurant's...Read more