When tin advertising signs first appeared in the U.S. around the beginning of the 19th century, they were hand-painted, making them relatively expensive to produce. But as industrialization took hold and lithography became commonplace, tin signs vied with paper posters as the means for selling products.
The rise of tin advertisements might have had something to do with the new U.S. craze for name-brand prepackaged food products. These days, "processed foods" have a bad rap, but at the time, these items were more sanitary than food sold in barrels or bins, and consumers came to expect a certain level of quality from brands such as Kellogg's.
Originally, most food products came in tin-plated containers, which were covered with labels that were stenciled or printed on paper. Machines that could trim and stamp sheets of tin were introduced around 1875, and between 1869 and 1895 manufacturers developed a process that allowed them to use lithography to transfer images directly onto the tin boxes. Naturally, this tough material was also used for signs, which were painted, stenciled, and ultimately lithographed as the century progressed. Unlike paper advertisements, tin signs could survive the weather when hung outside a store to help sell the items inside.
Even though they were expensive to make, lithographed tin signs were used to sell everything under the sun—from food, beer, tobacco, and soft drinks like Coca-Cola to gasoline, farm equipment, insurance, and household appliances.
Lithography allowed for eye-catching, colorful photorealistic imagery that pushed American typographical arts to new heights. A company's logo or icon could be stamped into the tin so it stood out in relief. In fact, manufacturers were constantly trying to one-up each another, to see who could create the most beautiful advertising possible. The reward was having their signs hung in prominent locations inside and outside stores, including on door handles.
Because of the pricey nature of these lithographed signs, product manufacturers often wouldn't give their tin advertisements away to stores that carried their goods. Instead, they would lend their signs to the businesses—such highly sought-after "self-documented" signs have a "property of" label printed on the back.
For some reason, Coshocton, Ohio, would become a center for tin signs. In 1875, Jasper Freemont Meek, a telegraph operator and newspaper publisher there, established the Tuscaror...
When the process for using offset lithography on tin signs was perfected in 1895, the Tuscarora and Standard companies began producing beautiful advertisements, which are among the most sought-after tin signs today. The companies started working together in 1899, and were formally incorporated as the Meek and Beach Company in March of 1901. A mere nine month later, Beach left to form his own H.D. Beach Company, which specialized in signs. Meek renamed his company the Meek Company in 1905, and after his 1908, the company was renamed American Art Works, which flourished as the leading advertising manufacturer for the next two decades.
Tin signs hit their peak in the 1920s, before they were overshadowed by the growing popularity of porcelain enamel signs. While the technique for enameling iron signs with ground-up glass—producing what are known as porcelain signs—came to the United States from Europe in 1890, it wasn't until the Art Deco period that tastes favored the stenciled, stylized look of porcelain signs, which resembled Japanese woodblock prints, over the photorealistic imagery of tin ones. Tin signs, which by then were actually cheaper to produce, also rusted more easily than porcelain signs, as the glaze on the latter protected the metal from the elements.
During World War II scrap drives, both porcelain enamel and tin signs were melted down for the metal they contained. In fact, tin sign production stopped all together during the war. While both porcelain and tin signs made comebacks in the postwar years, by the 1950s plastic and steel soon became the sign materials of choice.
Common vintage tin signs includes ones that read "Rooms to Let" and were made for hotels. More rare, and expensive, are signs such as the treasured lithographed Grape Nuts advertisement featuring the company's iconic girl and her Saint Bernard. Tin signs with imagery, particularly of women, kids, pets, or items no longer in production like Richardson's Kola Gum, are generally more valuable that those with only words.
Other prized types of tin signs include those in the "self-frame" style, whose design incorporates a border that resembles a frame. Collectors also look for die-cut tin signs, particularly those shaped like figures.
When buying a vintage tin sign, look carefully for evidence of rust, which can greatly reduce a sign’s value. Tin signs are also easy to reproduce, so if its condition seems too good to be true, it probably is.
To determine the value of a tin sign, you must consider the condition of the sign, how beat up it is, and how much rust it has. Tin collectors grade the signs on a scale of 1 to 10—grade 10 signs can be worth 20 times as much as those on the low end of the scale. Signs can also been dated by looking at the lithography through a magnifying glass. If you see a regular pattern of dots, the sign was made using a photo-lithographic process from around the time of World War I.