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]

Plan 59

Plan 59

From the Nostlagia Factory in Virginia comes this celebration of 'mid-century automotive advertising illustrations'… [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]

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]

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]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Old Oilzum Motor Oil Lubster Sign Porcelain 1940sLarge Vintage C.1940 Goodyear Tires 66" Porcelain Metal Gas & Oil SignVtg Advertising Sign Shell Old Enamel Sign Shell Oil And Gas Plaque Ancien ShellVtg Advertising Sign Shell Sealed Pump Old Enamel Sign Plaque Email Ancien ShellLarge Vintage 1920's Sinclair Gasoline 36" Porcelain Metal Gas & Oil SignVintage Coca Cola Drug Store Sign 2 Sided Porcelain Collector Quality 1933Large Vintage 1950's Ok Chevrolet Used Cars 62" Porcelain Metal Gas & Oil SignAdvertising Sign Vtg Indian Motorcycles Old Enamel Sign Emaille Plaque AncienLarge Vintage 1960 Mobil Pegasus 102" Porcelain Metal Gas Station SignVtg Shell Advertising Sign Old Enamel Sign Shell Motor Oil Plaque Ancien ShellVintage Original Zerolene Standard Oil Gas Pump Double Sided Porcelain SignVintage 1950's Coca Cola Soda Pop Bottle 36" Porcelain Metal Button Sign~niceNice Pontiac Indian Sales And Service Sign Automobile Not PorcelainVtg Michelin Advertising Sign Bibendum Tyre Old Enamel Sign Michelin Enamel SignOld Enamel Sign Power Globe Petrol Pump Gasoline Vintage Garage Advert MetalOld Enamel Sign Singer Sewing Machines Vintage Advert Clothes Shabby ChicLarge Vintage 1940's Lee's Sandwich Shop 2 Sided 42" Porcelain Metal Neon SignSuper Rare!! 20`s Porcelain Coca Cola Sign In Excellent Condition!!!Old Buy Pound's Sunrise Bread Porcelain Door Push Palm Plate Advertising SignVintage 1930s Mobiloil Gargoyle Mobil Motor Oil 2 Sided 61" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1940's Mobiloil Mobil Pegasus Motor Oil 2 Sided 62" Porcelain Metal SignOriginal 1930s Texaco Porcelain Curved Pump Plate, Sign. 15"Rare Vintage Porcelain Veedol Motor Oil Tombstone Double Sided Sign -awesome!!!Original Porcelain Pennzoil Sign No Reserve!!Vintage Raleigh Bicycle Porcelain SignAntique Vtg Drink Coca Cola In Bottles Button Sign Porcelain 24" Old Coke 1940sVintage 1949 Amalie Motor Oil Sign Original Metal Not Porcelain-stunning!!!Large Vintage C.1930 Piedmont Cigarettes Tobacco 46" Porcelain Metal SignAdvertising Sign Vtg Triumph Old Enamel Sign Triumph Motorcycles Plaque AncienVintage Heavy Porcelain Phillips 66 Double Sided Shield Original SignNear Mint * Pegasus 1950s Vintage Mobil Regular Old Gas Pump Porcelain SignOld Enamel Sign Brooke Bond Tea Shabby Chic Cafe Restaurant Vintage Advert TinEnamel Sign Wadworth's Beer Ales Brewery Pub Devizes Wiltshire Vintage BottleOld Enamel Sign Duckham's Motor Oil Thermometer Vintage Garage Motor Car Tin CanRed Head Two Sided Porcelain Valve Lubricator Sales & Service Sign - 12" By 18"Flying A Wings Porcelain Enamel Aero-type Gasoline SignOld Triple Shell Motor Oil Sign Box Nto Enamel Jug Tin Can Petrol Pump GasolineDouble-sided Pennzoil Porcelain Sign- VintageVintage Porcelain Union Ice SignVintage Porcelain 1949 Mobilgas Sign Off Pump Original-beauty!!!Mobil Oil Mobilgas Pegasus Orginal Porcelain Rest Room Sign 8" X 8 " Wow 1940'sOriginal Union 76 Triton Motor Oil Can Rack Porcelain Sign Display Gas Pump 1930s Firestone Porcelain SignVintage Porcelain 1946 Mobilgas Special Sign Off Pump- Very Nice!!!Large Vintage 1930's Us Tires 72" Porcelain Metal Gas & Oil SignOriginal Texaco Porcelain Flange Sign No Reserve!!Old Enamel Sign Beggars Warning Notice Metal Plaque Shabby Chic Vintage AdvertAlloy Sign Ferodo Lion Tm Brakes Clutch Advert Vintage Garage Nto Enamel OilVintage Porcelain On Steel Goodyear Tire SignRare Antique Porcelain Neon Schlitz Beer Bar Sign Curb Vintage Old AdvertisingVintage Original Australian Shell Motor Oil Stand Enamel SignOld Sinclair Gas Pump Badge Sign Porcelain Rare Vintage Pictorial Shell Benzin Enamel Sign - Automobilia1920s-30s N.y.city Police "10th Division" Porcelain Sign All Original+beauty!1950s Grange Supply Company Porcelain Farm SignOld Enamel Sign Vapour Baths Bath House Turkish London Deptford Massage ParlourVintage Original "fire Escape" Porcelain Metal Sign Hand Pointing FingerOld Enamel Sign Lee Castle Clothes Boots Shirts Hosiery Irish Vintage AdvertLollipop~curb Sign~city Service~kool Motor~gas & Oil~porcelain~ Sign~lubesterVintage Cool Cow Milk With Frigidaire Refrigerator Porcelain Sign ~ Dairy ~ Nr