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.

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]

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]

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]

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    

Rare 1920's Queen Cola Embossed Tin Sign, Coca Cola, Soda Fountain, VirginiaRare 1930s Kayo Soda Tin Embossed Sign, Very Good ConditionVintage 1940's 50's Ford Battery Rack Garage Truck Car Display Metal Tin SignNice~nice~nice 1950s Vintage Stihl Chain Saw Old Logo 36x28 Inch Tin SignVery Nice 1960s Vintage Gulf Gas Station Old 1 Qt. Oil Can Display Rack Tin SignKiller Near Mint Rare Early 1909 Coca-cola "exhibition Girl" Tin Tip Tray Sign1870's American Beer / Brewery Tin Lithograph Advertising Sign By Wells & HopeRare Vtg 1950's Drink Double Cola Just Wonderful "6 Pack Bottles" Tin Metal SignOld Original Best Way Farm Feeds Service Dealer Seed Store Tin SignOriginal Fisk Tires Flange Tin Flange Sign With Fisk Boy 1930's Impossible FindNos Unused Near Mint 1966 Vintage Coca Cola Fishtail & Bottle Old Tin SignPearl Xxx Lager Beer Enamel Painted Tin Flange Sign San Antonio, Texas Tx SpursRare 20's 30's Hires Root Beer Flange Heavy Tin Sign Advertising Gas SodaDisney Kevin & Jody Wdw 40th Haunted Mansion Attraction Poster Tin Sign DisplayNice ~ 1940s Vintage Blaney's Seed Corn Old 20x20 Inch Die-cut Tin SignRare Van Dyke Cigar Tobacco Tin Sign Advertising Vintage Authentic Exc Cond 179wNos 1950s Vintage Unused Near Mint * Mail Pouch Tobacco Old Embossed Tin SignDisney Disneyland 55th Anniversary Le 1955 Skyway Bucket Tin Sign Prop ReplicaDisney Disneyland 55th Anniversary Le 1955 Golden Horseshoe Tin Sign PropOriginal Chrysler Outboard Marine Motors Gas Oil Tin Sign Drink Moxie Soda Tin SignDrink Bubble Up Embossed Tin Sign 1939Old Nos Tin Litho Soda Pop Advertising Sign Dexter Beverages Central Falls RiDisney Disneyland 55th Anniversary Le 1955 Nature's Wonderland Tin Sign PropVintage 3 Three V Tin Metal Non Porcelain Bottler Pam Clock Thermometer Sign WowDisney Kevin & Jody Wdw 40th Tropical Serenade Tiki Room Poster Tin Sign DisplayEarly Velvet Tobacco Tin Litho Sign (rare)Chero Cola Rare Original Tin SignWestern Auto Tin Sign "abilene, Texas" Metal Associate Store Sign CleanSun Crest Die Cut Thermometer Cola Soda Fountain Tin Advertising Sign1945 7 Up Octagon Tin Metal Sign 7-up Likes You Vintage Original Very Cool! 14"Very Nice * 1954 Vintage John Deere Old Tin Thermometer Sign1940's 3v Cola 3 V Soda Pop Tin Bottle Cap Advertising Sign Nice Condition!!!!!!All Original 1920-30s Baby Ruth Gum Tin Advertising SignN.o.s Mint 1940's Canadian Roe Feeds Atwood, Ontario Embossed Tin Door Push SignVintage Tin Farm Fresh Eggs Sign From Beacon Feeds€1950`s Allis Chalmers Original Parts Dealership Tin Sign Tractor Nice GraphicsEarly Original Canadian Martin Senour Paints Tin Litho Color Card Wallbox Sign Disney Kevin Jody Wdw 40th Monorail System Contemporary Poster Tin Sign DisplayMint Unused 1950s Vintage Posted Cattle Ranch Texas Farm Embossed Tin SignNos. Coca Cola Tin Sign.Nos Rare 1930s Vintage Riley Bros. That's Oil Old Embossed 20x9 Inch Tin SignVintage Old Gold Cigarettes Tin Metal Sign Approx. 24 " Circa 1940/50'sRare 1920s Vintage Cal-penn Motor Oil Old Emboss Tin Gas Station 20x14 Inch SignNos Unused Near Mint * 1960s Vintage Ffa Member Lives Here Old Embossed Tin SignC.1920 "kleanall" Motor Car Oil Wax Advertising Bottle Tin Sign Hamilton CanadaDl Vtg Mobiloil Arctic Filpruf Oil Bottle Rack Tin Sign Mobil Gas StationUnused Near Mint * 1950s Vintage Kraft Pex Chicken Feed Old Feed Store Tin SignPhilip Morris Vintage Embossed Tin Advertising SignVintage Vogue Tin Cigarette Paper Display SignBud Light Nfl Football Tin Sign With Team Logos New Never DisplayedVintage Illinois Farm Bureau - Member Tin Metal Sign / Nice Shape/ Lloyd Shepard1970s "crest Lager" Tin Beer Sign-pub Tap "ask For Crest Lager Brewed For Men!"Nice 1940s Vintage Dunlop Tires Old Gas Station Tin Tire Display SignRare Vintage Original Overland Service Tin Car SignUnused Near Mint 1979 Vintage Snapper Mower Old Logo Embossed Tin Turtle SignVintage Original Drink White Rock Tin Sign - No Reserve!!!!Early C.1925 "effecto Auto" Motor Car Oil Enamel Advertising Bottle Tin Can SignUnusual 1930's Stillicious Chocolate Dairy Milk Embossed Tin Door Tacker Sign