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]

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]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Large Vintage 1940's Westinghouse Appliances 70" Neon Embossed Porcelain SignOriginal 1930's Conoco Germ Processed Oils 2 Sided Porcelain Sign And Rare FrameVintage Antique Original Kendall The 2000 Mile Oil Porcelain Sign Double SidedVintage 1950's Coca-cola Porcelain 24" Button Sign1950's Porcelain Sinclair Curb Sign Double Two Sided Gas Oil Vintage Station Old1950's-60's Nos Sinclair Letters Gas Oil Vintage Sign Mint Station Not PorcelainCws Shieldhall Sauce Bottle Enamel Porcelain Palm Push Finger Plate Sign C1930sLarge Vintage 1948 Coca Cola Soda Pop Bottle 54" Metal Sign-not PorcelainVintage Porcelain Rebel Gas Oil Double Sided Sign 30" Diameter Embossed Drink Ice Cold Coca Cola Corrugated Sign Bottle Coke Soda Mobil Vintage Auntie Chatter Motor Oil For Fords Porcelain Advertising SignSinclair H-c Sign 6' Porcelain Double Sided Vintage Porcelain Sohio Gas Sign Circa 1930'sVintage 1920's Standard Red Crown Gasoline 42" Porcelain Metal Gas Oil SignLarge Vintage 1950's Coca Cola Soda Pop 36" Porcelain Metal Button SignOld Vintage Porcelain Texaco Aircraft Engine Oil Enamel SignFoster's Freeze Vintage Ice Cream Cone Porcelain Outdoor Advertising Sign Genuine Ford Battery Salas - Service Porcelian Enamel SignCoca Cola 36" Button Sign-1950's Porcelain-coke AdvertisingVintage 1920's Hill's Bros. Coffee 21" Porcelain Metal Thermometer SignTexaco Porcelain SignOld Vintage Porcelain Drink Coca Cola Door Enamel SignKing Kard Overalls Work Wear Shirts Porcelain Dealer Sign Store Display Denim Ford Porcelain Wall Thermometer Garage Shop Gauge Man Cave SignVintage Porcelain Motor Coach Bus SignOld Vintage Porcelain Mobiloil Socony Vacuum Enamel Sign1950's Porcelain Michelin Zigzag Tire Sign Awesome Sign Gas & OilOld Vintage Porcelain Sunlight Soap Enamel SignGreyhound Bus Depot Porcelain Sign Highway Transportation Tire Taxi Hot Rat RodNos 1950's Coca Cola Arrow 12" Button Sign Vintage Old Near Mint Not Porcelain Vintage Texaco Porcelain Sign, Original, 2 SidedVintage ,old And Original Texaco Motor Oil Double Sided Porcelain SignVintage 1950's Atlantic Kerosene Gas Pump Plate 17" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1950's Coca Cola Candy Film Soda Pop 30" Porcelain Metal SignVintage California Highway Detour Porcelain Sign With Reflectors Old Vintage Porcelain Drink Coca Cola Door Enamel Sign1915-porcelain Pennsylvania License Plate-15" Stamped-brilliant Mfg-vintage SignRare - Veedol Starburst Double-sided Rack Sign - Not Porcelain ( Oil Can )Original Rare Hancock Gasoline 2 Sided Porcelain Sign No Reserve!!1950's U.s. Highway Hwy 66 Kansas Sign Vintage Oil Gas Not PorcelainNice Vintage Porcelain Barber Shop Sign, Wildroot 1956Rare 1920s Dodge Brothers 2-sided Porcelain Sign...w@w!!Rare 1950's Porcelain Cities Service Clean Rest Rooms Metal SignVintage 1950's Gulf Kerosene Gas Pump Plate 11" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1950's Eveready Shop Display Sign/man-cave/not Enamel.Authentic Porcelain Gulf Oil Advertising No-nox Gas Pump Plate Station SignOld Original Dx Motor Oil Porcelain SignMobilgas Mobilfuel Diesel Porcelain Oil & Gas Pump SignVintage 1950's Coca Cola Drugs Soda Pop 30" Porcelain Metal SignSharp Old And Original M & S Porcelain Soda SignVintage C.1930 Feen-a-mint Chewing Gum Laxative Candy 29" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1947 Coca Cola Pilaster Vertical Sign Not Porcelain Amazing ConditionVintage 1930's Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco 39" Porcelain Metal Thermometer SignVintage Nyc Subway Station Porcelain (no) Spitting Unlawful Sign Plaque BrooklynUnused Near Mint ~ 1950s Vintage Ethyl Gasoline Old Gas Pump Porcelain SignSterling 925 Vintage Sign Norway Butterfly Scatter Pin Brooch Yellow Enamel 5359Genuine Chevrolet Parts Dealership Sign Porcelain Chevrolet "ok" Used Cars Neon Sign Vintage 1950's Style - 80" Around Porcelain?1930s Small Round Original Porcelain Cities Service Oils Black And White SignAppleton Light Fixture With Porcelain Shade Service Station Sign Not Can Oil Gas