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]

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]

Pittsburgh Signs Project

Pittsburgh Signs Project

This group artistic effort to catalog the signs of Pittsburgh captures many vintage signs (porcelain, neon, wood, t… [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    

Rare 1930s Vintage Ac Spark Plug Gasket 1 Cent Old Gas Station Tin Display SignGraphic 1930s Vintage Odin Cigar Old Embossed Tin SignGraphic * Rare 1930s Vintage Nehi Root Beer Old Country Store Embossed Tin SignRare 1930s Vintage Anheuser Busch Budweiser Beer Old Embossed Tin 40x20 In. SignPabst Blue Ribbon Beer Sign Tin Over Cardboard Toc Pbr Milwaukee Wi 1940'sNear Mint 1950s Vintage Mom, Be A Honey ... Take Home Bunny Bread Old Tin Sign1930s Vintage Orange Kist Soda Old Country Store Embossed Tin Door Push SignVintage Norka Root Beer Tin Litho Sign W/bottle-akron Ohio-12x24-mca Sign-nice!Vintage Butter-nut Bread Embossed Tin Litho Sign--6x13.75-schulze Sign-nice!!Early Canadian O'keefe's Beverages Tin Litho Door Push/pull Sign--super Nice!!Very Nice ~ 1950s Vintage Dad's Root Beer Old Embossed Bottle Cap Tin SignVintage Kist Beverages Tin Litho Door Pull/push Sign With Bakelite Handle-nice!!1940s Vintage Critic Feeds "more Eggs At Less Cost" Old Wire Egg Basket Tin SignAntique Vintage Stoneware Food Container Tin Advertising Sign RareRare 1926 Vintage Hires Root Beer Old Country Store Embossed Tin SignNice 1940s Vintage Red Man Chewing Tobacco Indian With Arrow Old Tin SignVintage Norka Ginger Ale Tin Litho Sign W/bottle-akron Ohio-12x24-mca Sign-nice!Nice 1940s Vintage Allis Chalmers Tractor Dealer Parts Old Graphic Tin SignNice Old Embossed Tin Sunbeam Bread Advertising Bread Sign Rare 1940s Vintage Twang Root Beer Old Country Store Embossed Tin SignVintage Norka Cherry-strawberry Tin Litho Sign W/bottle-akron Oh-12x24-mca Sign!Very Nice ~ 1930s Vintage Morton's Salt Pours Old General Store Tin Sign2oo2 Lone Star Beer Armadillo W Texas Flag Tin Wall Tacker Sign TexasGraphic 1950s Vintage Pfister Seed Corn Mansfield Il * Old Tin Thermometer Sign1940 Diecut Royal Crown Cola Soda Pop Tin Sign With Bottle Marked AmVintage 1966 Wolf's Head Motor Oil Embossed Tin Sign With Wooden Frame Very NiceRare Vintage Tin Nehi Gas Today Oil Store Sign Not Porcelain AutomotiveVintage 1950 Seven Up " Fresh Up With 7 Up " Tin Advertising Sign 7 UpNice Old Tin Toc Reisch's Wiener Beer Advertising Beer Sign Very Nice 1940s Vintage Kayo Chocolate Soda Drink Old 14 X 27 Inch Tin SignVintage Kellams Binghamton Teas & Coffees Tin Litho Door Push/pull Sign--nice!!Large Embossed Tin Phillip Morris Tobacco Cigarette Sign No Reserve!!!Nice Old Embossed Tin Delaware Punch Soda Advertising Soda Sign Original 1920's Pearl Soap Tin Sign, Door PushVintage Yuengling Tin Beer Breweriana Sign Pottsville Schuylkill Lowered Price!!1927 Vintage Kist Soda Old Country General Store Embossed Tin 28x11 Inch SignAntique 1954? Raised Lettering 7 Up Soda/pop Advertising Tin Painted Sign 1920s Purolator Oil Filter Tin Gas Station Sign VintageVintage Suncrest Orange Soda Tin Litho Door Push/pull Sign With Bottle--nice!!Vintage Pepsi Cola Painted Tin Sign/thermometer - 44-48Rare Early 1900s Pre Pro Crown Beer Bartels Brewing Co. Old Tin Charger Sign1952 Vintage Canfield Ginger Ale Old Country Store Embossed Tin 28x10 Inch SignVintage 1950s Treat Yourself Buy Old Gold Cigarettes Tin Litho Advertising SignOrignial Veedol Motor Oils Tin Sign Flying A Gas Station Not Porcelain 2 SidedVintage Royal Crown (rc) Cola Tin Litho Door Push/pull Sign With Bottle--nice!!Vintage Bunny Bread Tin Litho Door Push/pull Sign-"mom, Be A Honey"-12x4-nice!!1950s Vintage Mission Soda Old Country Store Embossed Tin 18x18 Inch SignFord Tractor Farming Tin Metal Sign Dearborn Equipment Antique AdvertisingAntique Century Biscuit Co. General Store Advertising Tin Bread Box Sign DisplayRare 1930s Vintage Koehler Beer Erie Pa Brewing Co. Old Tin Over Cardboard SignRare * Nice 1930s Vintage Ask For Barton's Salt Old Country Store Tin SignVtg Antique Tin Metal Black&white Two-tone Chew Copenhagen Thermometer Sign 40sNear Mint 1950s Vintage Pepsi Refresh Without Filling Celluloid Tin Oval Sign Vintage Kool Cigarettes Metal Sign Tin Litho PenguinOriginal Fleet Wing Ethyl Gasoline Tin Sign Very RareRare Near Mint 1920s Vintage The Hub Clothing Hats Shoes Great Falls Mt Tin SignUnused Near Mint * Kraft Pex Chicken Feed Old Feed Store Tin SignNear Mint Embossed Squirt Soda Pop Tin Metal Sign With Boy And Bottle La Fendrich Cigar Old Tobacco Tin Advertising Vintage Thermometer Sign G-97Early 'nr' Nature's Remedy Embossed Toc Tin Litho Sign-23x17-hd Beach Sign-nice!