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]

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]

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]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1960's Coca Cola Porcelain Door Push Sign - Scioto Sign CoVintage Antique Tin Metal Non Porcelain Ac Spark Plugs Thermometer Sign Gas OilVintage 1920's Barber Shop Pole Gas Oil 30" Porcelain Metal Sign1935 Porcelain Service Station Double Side Gas Station SignOld Mccormick - Deering Tractor Service 2 Sided Porcelain Sign Orginal SignConoco Minuteman Motor Oil Porcelain Sign Dsp -- Rare 30" Sinclair Oils Double Sided Porcelain Sign Motor Oil Gas Gasoline DinoOriginal Wayne Feeds Porcelain Sign Beautiful Will ShipShell Porcelain SignSml Double Sided Orig Old Antique Art Deco Hornimans Tea Enamel Advertising Sign*small* Original Old Antique 'each Man' Railway Military Enamel Advertising SignAntique Tobacco Advertising Porcelain Enamel Sign *helmar Turkish Cigarettes*Vintage 1930's Feen-a-mint Chewing Gum Medicine Drug 29" Porcelain Metal SignAmazing, Large Vintage Sinclair Porcelain Neon Sign, Dated 6.2.24!Vtg Porcelain Sign Ward's Vitovim Bread Advertising Thermometer,tin Soda DisplaySmal Original Old Antique Lost Property Railway Military Enamel Advertising Sign Porcelain Red Indian Motor Oil Double Sided Porcelain SignVintage C.1930 R.g. Sullivan's 7-20-4 Cigars Tobacco 30" Porcelain Metal SignOriginal Sinclair 14' Porcelain Sign Nice!Vintage 23" John Deere Porcelain Metal Sign Tractor Farm Country Decor Plow DeerVintage 1920's Shell Huiles Motor Oil 2 Sided 24" Porcelain Metal Flange SignFord Genuine Parts Porcelain Garage Dealer Sign Dodge Ih Seed Ford ChevroletExshaw's Brandy Porcelain Enamel Advertising Sign C1900sEarly Vintage That Good Gulf Gasoline 2-sided Porcelain Flange Sign-18x22-nice!!Old Enamel Sign No Hawkers Or Circulars Vintage Door Plate Advert Warning NoticeVintage 1946 Texaco Fire-chief Gasoline Gas Pump Plate 18" Porcelain Metal SignOrange Crush Porcelain Sign Crushy Soda Drink Pop Usa Paw Paw Bait Company, Fishing Lure Porcelain SignVintage Old And Original Porcelain Orange Crush Door Push Sign 1930's Goodrich Silvertowns Porcelain Sign Garage Service Station AdvertisingEarly Shell Porcelain Gasoline SignVintage 1940's Tampa Nugget Cigars Tobacco 24" Porcelain Metal Sign~niceOriginal 1930's Porcelain Goodrich Tires Free Air - Air Meter Gas Station SignVintage 1930s Western Union Telegraph Telephone 30" Porcelain Metal Arrow SignAntique Railroad Early 20thc Railway Express Agency Porcelain Sign, NrVintage Caterpillar Bulldozer Tractor Farm Porcelain SignShell Air Porcelain SignPorcelain Franklin Pennsylvania Motor Oil 2 Sided Enamel Sign Size : 27" X 25". Standard Sign Milk Glass Flame Globe Service Station Gas Oil Not Porcelain Standard Gasoline Vintage Porcelain Sign Pump Lubester Plate Gas Oil GaragePorcelain B F Goodrich Tire Door Push Sign Palm Press Mountie Nwmp Rcmp Vintage Texaco Texas Company 11 3/4" Porcelain Gas & Oil Sign Lubster Pump PlateVintage Sherwin Williams Paint 3-d Embossed Porcelain Metal Sign-cover The EarthVintage 1930's Bewiley's Anchor Feeds Pig Cow Farm 25" Porcelain Metal SignDouble Sided Porcelain Plymouth Chrysler SignAntique Vtg 1920s 1930s Porcelain Shoe Store Flange Sign Ad Old Not Gas Oil RareWashington Gasoline Motor Oil Gas Porcelain Pump Plate Lubester Sign Horse Shoetobacco Double Sided Flange Porcelain Enamel Advertisement Sign12" Drink Coca-cola Porcelain Fishtail Advertising Soda Rack Sign Coke Vintage Metal Enamel Fishing Sign "want Good Fish Obey The Law"Vintage Original Gulf Supreme Motor Oil Porcelain Sign-gas Service StationPorcelain Red Indian Motor Oil Double Sided Gasoline Enamel Sign 24 InchesRare Vintage Original Fleet Wing Motor Oil Sign Not Porcelain No Reserve!!Original * Graphic * 1920s Vintage Star Tobacco Old Country Store Porcelain SignVintage 1950's Dr Pepper Soda Pop 24" Porcelain Metal SignVintage C.1920 Murad Cigarettes Tobacco 2 Sided 20" Porcelain Metal Flange SignVintage Standard Oil Company Indiana Service 11 3/4" Porcelain Gas Sign! LubsterVintage Dixie Gasoline 11 1/4" Porcelain Gas & Oil Sign! Pump Plate! Lubster Nr!Sign Porcelain Two Sided Aaa Keystone Automobile Club Pennsylvaniatin Metal CapCalifornia Route Us 66 Highway Motor Car Oil Gas Vintage Porcelain Lube Sign