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 C.1950 Nash Car Dealership 2 Sided 75" Neon Porcelain Gas Oil SignVintage 1966 Ford Dealer Lighted Sign Not Neon Or Porcelain , Gas Garage DisplayVintage 1920's Indian Gas 2 Sided 44" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1940's Phillips 66 Gas Station 2 Sided 30" Porcelain Metal SignVintage C.1940 Veedol Motor Oil 2 Sided 22" Porcelain Metal Flange Sign~niceRare Vintage 1920's Apex Motor Oil 2 Sided 20" Porcelain Metal Sign1922 Duesenberg 8 Porcelain Dealership Sign"no Remake",gas & Oil Ad,rare,34"x13"Double Sided Texaco Motor Oil Porcelain Display Oil & Gas Sign! No Reserve!Vintage 1950's Aaa Approved 2 Sided 30" Porcelain Metal Gas Oil Sign~niceVintage 1930's Phillips 66 Gas Station 2 Sided 30" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1920's Bell System Telephone Office 2 Side 40" Porcelain Metal Sign~niceVintage 1930's Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco 39" Porcelain Metal Thermometer SignCoca-cola Coke Button Original Porcelain Sign! No Reserve!Antique Porcelain Opaline Motor Oil Automotive Sign Gas Station Sinclair Dino Vintage 1951 Champion Spark Plugs Gas & Oil 38" Porcelain Metal Sign~niceVintage 1940's Porcelain Prestone Anti Freeze Oil Gas Station Thermometer SignAtlantic Aviation Motor Oil Tin Wood Framed Sign Early Gas Like Porcelain RareSuperb 1950's Pepsi Cola Kick Plate Porcelain Sign P&m Orillia CanadaVintage Porcelian Enamel Lubrication Sign Coca Cola Gas StationVintage 1940's Goodrich Silvertowns Double Sided Porcelain Sign No ReserveLarge Vintage 1940's Pepsi Cola Soda Pop 2 Sided 42" Porcelain Metal SignPre-prohibition Porcelain Uncle Sam Ale Sign Conway Bros/troy Ny Wgreat Usam PicOld Large Clark Dairy Porcelain Die Cut Milk Bottle Advertising Sign QuartVintage 1950's Coca Cola Button Soda Pop Bottle 24" Porcelain Metal Sign~niceVintage C.1950 Rexall Drugstore Pharmacy Drug Medicine 68" Porcelain Metal SignVintage C.1930 Imperial Marvelube Motor Oil 20" Porcelain Metal SignVintage Porcelain Milton Ma. Ginger Ale Sign Copeland Soda Pop Beer Boston Mass Rare! Antique 1920s-1930s Coca-cola Serve Yourself, Pay The Clerk Enamel SignAntique Porcelain Enamel Duke’s Mixture Tobacco Sign Plaque It PleasesVintage Original Fisk Tires Flange 25" Porcelain SignFord Sales Service Corner Long 3d Sign Pony Shelby Boss Truck Mobil Texaco1953 Vintage Porcelain S&h Green Stamps Sign Grocery Gas Oil Retail Store Old NrRare Vintage Original Porcelain Valvoline Motor Oil Sign Gas Station AdvertisingOld Porcelain Sign From Shreveport Ice Service, Shreveport LouisianaVintage 1940's Prestone Anti-freeze Gas Oil 37" Porcelain Metal Thermometer SignVintage 1940's Barber Shop 48" Porcelain Curved Metal Pole Sign By MarvyOld Texaco Porcelain Sign 19.8" Oil Gas Station Advertising Enamel Pump Can UsedVintage C.1940 Texas Hereford Cattle Cow Farm 2 Sided 38" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1940's Sinclair Oil & Gas Company 26" Porcelain Metal SignRare Texaco Porcelain Gas Pump Sign 1935Large 3 X 4 Ft. Grain Belt Beer Porcelin Sign****very Nice!****l@@k!!!Large Vintage 1920's Purol Gasoline Pure Oil Co 2 Sided 48" Porcelain Metal SignDiamond Porcelain Sign Mobil Sunoco Phillips 66 Atlantic Arco Texaco SinclairVintage Porcelain Prestone Antifreeze Thermometer Sign Gas Oil Engine Coolant Vintage 1950's American Credit Cards 2 Sided Gas Oil 36" Metal Porcelain SignEarly Porcelain American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Booth Flange SignVintage Porcelain Sign "to Call Police Use This Telephone" No ReserveRare Good Shape Porcelain Sinclair Pennsylvania Motor Oil Gas Sign !!John Deere Lanz Porcelain Sign --vintageVintage 1960 Coca-cola Porcelain Door Push ,push Bar Sign CokeVintage Mohawk Gasoline Porcelain Gas Pump SignWhite Rose Large Reproduction Porcelain Dealership 2-sided 36" Gas Oil SignRare, Old And Original Coca Cola Porcelain Sign,vintage Coke Sign1920s Hood Tire Porcelain Gas Station Sign,8x18,original,heavy/not Dated,rareLarge Vintage 1920's Major Gasoline 2 Sided 60" Porcelain Metal SignVintage 1920's Standard Gasoline Motor Oil 2 Sided 30" Porcelain Metal SignSocony Aircraft Oil Double Sided Porcelain SignVintage C.1950 Railway Express Agency Railroad 50" Metal Porcelain Gas Oil SignVintage 1940's Texaco Sky Chief Gasoline Gas Pump Plate 18" Porcelain Metal SignRare Original 1920s Beer Enforce Prohibition Tin Embossed Sign Non Porcelain Wow