From the 1880s until the 1950s, one of the most dominant forms of outdoor advertising signage was durable, weather-resistant porcelain. Originating in Germany and imported to the United States in the 1890s, porcelain signs, also known as enamel signs or porcelain enamel signs, featured layers of powdered glass that were painstakingly fused, color by color, onto a base of heavy rolled iron, which itself would be diecut into any number of shapes.

Some signs were affixed to walls and other vertical surfaces, others were two-sided so they could be hung from a bracket or “flanged” to be read by passersby. Either way, porcelain signs usually featured bold colors and graphics, producing eye-catching and attention-getting advertisements for everything from cigars to soda pop, motor oil to automobile tires, railroad stations to telephone booths.

In the early part of the 20th century, the technique was so new to United States that the major manufacturers of porcelain signs (Enameled Iron Company and Ingram-Richardson in Pennsylvania, Baltimore Enamel & Novelty in Maryland) had to import its craftsmen from Europe.

But it wasn’t long before porcelain signs developed their own uniquely American characteristics. Silkscreens replaced the stencils, steel replaced the iron and one manufacturer, Tennessee Enamel in Nashville, made so many porcelain signs for its biggest client, Coca-Cola, that people in the United States between the wars could be forgiven for thinking the technique was as American as a bottle of Coke.

The ubiquity of porcelain signs did not last long — for collectors, that scarcity is part of the appeal. Porcelain signs eventually became targets for trigger-happy marksmen, which depleted some of the inventory. Other signs had to be discarded due to crazing and or acid etching caused by a variety of environment factors.

By far the largest destroyer of porcelain signs was World War II. Like a lot of metal objects that were melted down to support the war effort, porcelain signs were sacrificed for the base metal they contained. Prior to World War II, there were a lot of porcelain signs just lying around, since the products they advertised were no longer being sold. After the war, the cost of producing porcelain signs was simply too expensive and the practice faded from general use.

Today, porcelain signs are one of the largest categories of advertising collectibles. Some of the most prized porcelain signs are those bearing the discarded logos of current and...

Then there are the tried-and-true porcelain-sign collectibles — from rare railroad signs for the Union Pacific and Western Pacific lines to highway signs produced by the California Auto Club. Indeed, according to author and sign collector Michael Bruner, just about any porcelain sign with the word “California” in it is in demand. And when it comes to porcelain signs, says Bruner, size matters.

“Some of the bigger porcelain signs can actually be cheaper than the smaller signs, because they’re harder to display,” he says. That’s probably why porcelain door pulls and pushes are so popular. “Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.”

Key terms for Porcelain Signs:

Crazing: If a porcelain sign was not fired properly, the enamel will not bond tightly to the metal body. In such cases, moisture can fill in the gap, causing the enamel to craze in intricate networks of minute cracks, thus dulling the finish of the porcelain.

Flanged: A flanged sign is folded at a right angle at one end so that the sign can be bolted or otherwise attached through the flange to a wall.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Advertising Antiques

Advertising Antiques

This classy looking British site features hundreds of high resolution photos of antique porcelain pre-war (enamel) … [read review or visit site]

Historical Marker Database

Historical Marker Database

If you're the type who pulls over when you see a 'historic marker ahead' sign, you'll love this site. Orchestrated … [read review or visit site]

Ad Access

Ad Access

Duke University's library has pulled together an impressive collection of over 7,000 ads printed in U.S. and Canadi… [read review or visit site]

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Ralph and Carol Falvo's excellent collection of automobiles, petroliana, jukeboxes, soda, and general store items. … [read review or visit site]

American Package Museum

American Package Museum

Ian House's gallery of early 20th Century American package designs. Browse the exhibits in slide show mode or view … [read review or visit site]

Found in Moms Basement

Found in Moms Basement

Paula Zargaj-Reynolds’ blog, an extensive collection of 20th century vintage advertising, is a visual feast. Scro… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

42" Waggoner Refining Co Petroleum Porcelain Sign Texas Cattle Ranch Rare1940's Vintage Porcelain Buffalo Motor Oil With Flange 2 Sided Enamel SignVintage 1940's Quaker State Motor Oil 2 Sided 29" Porcelain Metal Sign~niceVintage Rare Dairy Queen Safe-t Cup Ice Cream 12" X 4" Porcelain Door Push Sign!1950s Dairy Queen Porcelain Ice Cream SignVintage Studebaker Service Station 30" X 14" Porcelain Car, Truck Gas & Oil Sign1948-55 Original Scarce Antique Shell "tiger Stripe" 4' Porcelain Gas & Oil SignVintage Koolmotor Oil Cities Service "diecut" Porcelain Sign 9 1/2 X 10 Pre-prohibition Uncle Sam Ale/conway Bros, Troy, Ny Porcelain Enamel SignVintage 1920's Bell Telephone Gas Oil 2 Sided 18" Porcelain Metal Flange Sign1930s Sinclair Hc Gasoline Porcelain Large Round Sign 48" W Bezel Estate FindOriginal Coca Cola Drug Store General Store Porcelain Sign No ReserveVintage Original Welch Penn Motor Oil Sign Illinois Rockford Sst Not PorcelainCoca Cola 1940s Double Sided Porcelain Sign Lollipop OriginalPorcelain Prestone Anti Freeze Thermometer Sign Works Great !!1953 Shamokin Pa F&s Beer Cardboard Sign W Orig Frame Not Porcelain Hunt Dog Vintage Porcelain Lollipop Coca Cola Sign W/stand 1938 2 Sided Gas Station SignVintage 1940's Prestone Anti-freeze Gas Oil 37" Porcelain Metal Thermometer SignAntique Original Scrce Oldsmobile Viking 60" X 28" Porcelain Dealership Sign! Gm Shamokin Pa F&s Beer Cardboard Sign Not Porcelain Fishing HuntingOriginal Mobil Pegasus Cookie Cutter Porcelain Sign - No Reserve.. Will ShipLarge Vintage C.1930 Whitman's Chocolates Candy Gas Oil 40" Porcelain Metal SignAntique 1947 Mobil Mobilgas Restroom Pledge 7.75" X 7" Porcelain Gas & Oil SignVintage Texaco Marine White Gasoline Porcelain Gas Pump Plate Sign Boat Ship CanVintage Original Conoco Gas Station Men's Restroom Sign Metal Not PorcelainExtremely Rare Signal Gasoline & Motor Oil Porcelain Gas Pump Plate Sign 1931Michael Jordan Sign Series Porcelain Autograph Card Collection Auto /1000 (pwcc)Porcelain Chevrolet Neon Dealership Sign Old And OriginalAntique Scarce Original Standard Red Crown 30" Double Sided Porcelain Gas Sign!!Old Dekalb Rooster Porcelain Sign Chicken Seed Feed Huge Super Rare ChicksVintage 1940's Dr Pepper Soda Pop Gas Station 27" Porcelain Metal Sign1940's Vintage Porcelain Red Indian Motor Oil Gasoline 2 Sided Enamel SignRare 48" 4 Ft Original Antique Porcelain Coca Cola Button Coke Soda Sign Old VtgTexaco Marine White 12"x8" Porcelain Pump Plate Or Rack Sign. !! No ReserveVintage Socony Motor Oil 18" X 15" Porcelain Double Sided Gas & Oil Flange Sign!Vintage Coca Cola Rare Diecut Can 8 1/2" X 4 1/2" Porcelain Door Push Plate Sign1940's Vintage Porcelain Ford Genuine Parts Enamel SignVintage Pegasus 8" X 12" Porcelain Gas & Motor Oil Lubester Pump Plate Sign! Vintage Original Scarce Sherwin Williams 60" X 40" Porcelain Paint Sign +bracketVintage Chippewa Tires Porcelain Sign Indian Chief Garage Native American PartsVintage 1960 Texaco Fire Chief Gasoline Gas Pump Plate 18" Porcelain Metal SignUs Route 66 Vintage Heavy Steel Embossed Highway Sign California Not PorcelainVintage Shell Aviation Gasoline Porcelain Pump Plate Sign Gas OilVintage Wasatch Porcelain Gas Pump Plate Sign Metal Garage Man Indian Chief FordPotosi On Draught Lager Beer Porcelain Sign 11"x 21" Wisconsin Rare Vintage NiceVintage Texaco Sky Chief Marine Porcelain Gas Pump Plate Sign Metal Boat Water Old Vintage Porcelain Woolsey Marine Paints Co Advertising Enamel Sign Gas & OilGreyhound Bus Lines Oval Porcelain Sign Vintage Gas Pump Oil Gasoline StationVintage Original 1963 Texaco Fire Chief Porcelain Sign Gas Pump Plate Ssp 12x18Mobile Oil Porcelain Flange Sign1953 Shamokin Pa F&s Beer Cardboard Sign Not Porcelain Mt Carmel TrevortonVintage Radio Gasoline Porcelain Pump Plate Sign Metal Garage Man Cave StationMobil Mobiloil Aero 11 3/4" Porcelain Gas & Oil Sign Pump Plate AviationVintage Gargoyle Sign Porcelain Mobil Oil Gas Sign Door Push Coke Drink SodaAntique Scarce Original Sherwin Williams Paints 48" X 34" Porcelain Flange Sign!Cities Service Sign Porcelain OriginalVintage Orange Crush W/ Crushy & Bottle 10.5" X 3" Porcelain Soda Door Push SignNos Pontiac Indian Head Dealership Displays 1-24x24 Lighted Tin Sign PorcelainVintage 1930's Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco 39" Porcelain Metal Thermometer SignVintage 1940's Allied Paint Happy Painter Paint Porcelain Double Sided 30" Sign