Alex Renshaw discusses collecting Victorian and Edwardian period advertising antiques, including porcelain enamel signs. Based in Worcester, England, Alex can be reached through his website, Advertising Antiques, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
How did I get started collecting advertising antiques? My dad was a lecturer and tutor in graphics and art from the 1960s onwards, and was into vintage automobiles and advertising, like vintage signs, pumps, and globes. So I spent the large portion of my childhood going to auto swap meets and antiques fairs, I think it all started from there.
The first thing I collected was old bottles. In one of the books I read as a child, there was an aqua green bottle and I thought it was great and I really wanted it, and we eventually found one at an antique fair.
In the UK (I think it’s the same in the states), when you go bottle digging, everything ended up being thrown in the old municipal dump. I’ve found a lot of bottles and enamel signs there. I also studied art and the theory of art in college and when I finished college I became a graphic designer.
Collectors Weekly: Are you interested in advertising antiques for the designs then?
Renshaw: Yes. The things I collect that have the heaviest impact on me are heavily branded; with a name or logo, as much graphics as possible and combined with period imagery such as Victorian or Edwardian dress and contemporary scenes from Victorian England. Anything that gives a sense of the period that it came from, I’m more excited by. From a graphic point of view, the earlier the better.
I only collect up through the Edwardian period. Once you start getting past the First World War you get more modern graphics and all sorts of type faces like Arial and Helvetica that don’t appeal to me. It has to be almost very high Victorian, elaborate fonts, very much like the styles of graffiti these days, the 3D letter and shape behind the lettering. When you look at the early lettering, you also look at it because it’s fantastic, whereas modern lettering just conveys the meaning, there’s no beauty in it. A lot of the advertisements now are very clean and modern.
Collectors Weekly: Were people more focused on the art during the Victorian period?
Renshaw: There were a lot of artistic styles. The artistry involved in producing the lettering and particularly the lithograph technique, produced many layers of color, especially on the tins, advertising cards, and enamel signs. The graphics were so labor intensive, the quality and time taken to produce them would just produce fantastic results. Then in the First World War materials were running low, and after the Second World War everything started losing color. There weren’t so many colors, everything was a bit cheaper quality, the artistry turned to a modern style and that’s one of the reasons it became boring.
From Art Deco onwards there was this austere cleanliness. If you compare Art Nouveau to Art Deco, they’re as far apart as you can imagine. I’m very into the Art Nouveau with the organic shapes of the lettering and graphics. It isn’t just a matter of the form, it should have beauty with it as well. Deco has more impact, less beauty.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still collect?
Renshaw: Avidly. I probably handle about 100 items a week. Anything from really small tins to ephemera, to large enamel signs off the railway siding. I came into the business of antiques with a view of getting away from the desk and having a more physical job. And I found out antiques can be quite physical. It’s not unusual in England to buy a collection of 50 antiques at a time, something like that will happen every 3 to 4 months.
England is a place where there is still just a huge amount of this stuff around. The way the geography works, you’re never more than 40 miles away from any accommodation and that’s been the case since the turn of the century. If you see the plans for my local town, during the Victorian time there were about 415 shops in a town of 33,000 people, and now there’s 60,000 people and probably only 100 shops. A lot of the old advertising stuff survived and I think that’s why it’s so collectible, especially the enamel signs. They used those for everything, they used to patch up sheds and coal holes, they used them to support fencing.
Collectors Weekly: What’s on your site?
Renshaw: It’s a complete free for all. It’s all the people collecting in the UK and across the world sharing information about their collection, current news (particularly fakes and reproductions) and giving advice. I wanted to create a place for collectors to share their collections and chat. It shows that collecting is worldwide.
Collectors Weekly: What’s the focus of your collection?
Renshaw: I particularly like anything to do with food or confectionary products, but will collect any advertising as long as it’s Victorian or Edwardian. I do like the food tins, such as Custard Confectionary packaging, any chocolate bars before the First World War, any rare and unusual tobacco tins. The problem with tins is that there are millions of them.
I look for condition, but also the different type and font designs that are really elaborate and intertwined with an image of a person, a ship, period people, or period forms of transport. With the food stuff, anything that shows cakes, trays of jellies, or anything that looks like you’d want to eat it. Anything that’s quirky too, I have fertilizer signs that have turnips on them, they definitely have an element of Andy Warhol to them, anything that’s really out of place, over-sized products.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us more about the art on the signs and tins.
Renshaw: They used the lithograph technique, different stones for each color, or there was a litho press. All the tins were originally flat metal and card signs would just be paper and they’d run it through the litho press, it’s very much like silk screening. Today’s tins aren’t as appealing because many of the paints used in the Victorian era contained ingredients like arsenic, lead, and uranium, and these days you can’t use stuff like that. If you look at the Victorian colors they’re very vibrant, pastel shades.
The Victorians were very keen on pastel shades, and it’s very hard today to get close to the colors they used. There was also a huge thickness because of all the layers of paint which gave it a 3D effect. Today everything is printed at the same time on a flat paper, so you can’t get the Victorian colors and feel.
“After the First World War, you get type faces like Arial and Helvetica that don’t appeal to me.”
In terms of the inspiration for the designs, it’s the same as today. We have this idealist way we want to live our lives, everything clean and nice and looking like life is easy, successful, and confident. Same concept, different era. They used the same idea of looking good and getting on in society, fitting in, and being healthy. The way they did it was slightly different, like if you want your house to look nice, you get a maid to do it. In the Victorian era there were butlers and maids and the products would put them on their advertisements so people would think the product would raise their social status.
The art itself was done by commercial artists, and there were many great ones. But many remained unnamed because being a graphic artist didn’t have the same status as being an oil painter. Some of the big names during the Edwardian era are Tom Browne and John Hassall, both terrific cartoonists. They captured the imagination and their work was used in a lot in advertising such as Fry’s Chocolates and Players Cigarettes. They became famous in their own right. But there weren’t many artists who were allowed to put their name on the work, they worked for graphic agencies or the sign manufacturers and they worked in teams.
Collectors Weekly: How were signs and other advertising items used during the Victorian and Edwardian periods?
Renshaw: One of the most popular places for posting signs, besides the outside of shops, was the railway. The railway had tons of signs and advertising. The stations had long station platforms with white picket fencing and all the walls were covered with signs and posters. They really went for advertising back then, it was big.
A lot of today’s advertising techniques were developed in the Victorian period. Techniques such as using women to sell products, or just the idea that sex sells. There were very erotic and luscious ladies used in advertisements. And there were general “this will cure anything” ads. Today we have technology and I think that’s a big difference. But the essential principles were pretty much developed in the Victorian times.
Europe and the U.K. were different in their approach to design and advertising. The U.K. was closer to the U.S. in terms of signs, and posters. The differences got much bigger after the Art Nouveau period up until the First World War, with modernism beginning around 1910 to 1915. European artists were more abstract and broke away from the U.K. European advertising became a lot more abstract than the U.S. and the U.K. If you look at the signs from the 20s and 30s, the Europeans still used very vibrant colors in very abstract ways, which happened to a much lesser extent in the U.S. and UK. Europe embraced modernism more, where we were more restrained.
Collectors Weekly: What were some of the most popular advertising brands in the U.K.?
Renshaw: For general previsions, a lot of turn of the century brands are still recognizable today. The Mighty Lever Brothers are still a massive concern, producing anything from soap or kitchen cleaner. Heinz was huge and still is. Cadbury and Nestle, Lipton, some of the cigarette companies are still recognized like London. The more common the item was, the more popular the brand was. All the really common stuff from the First World War period, a lot of those companies are still going and still using the same trademarks and branding. For example, Coleman’s Mustard still has the bulls head logo, and the same color layout. The branding started at the turn of the century and it’s just continued. I have lots of items that have had the same tins and logos for over a hundred years.
Collectors Weekly: When did people start collecting advertising antiques?
Renshaw: Pretty early on. If you think of the Beatles in the 1960s, and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart, there’s this harkening back to the Edwardian Period. A lot of Victorian stuff was still around. It was about reaching it’s end, but artists started picking it up from the 1960s on. In terms of organized collecting of advertising items I think it was in the early 1970s that people started earnestly collecting and forming collector groups. A lot of it came from art students and schools. All these old shops were being knocked down so the students could find these items and use them to decorate their houses. A lot of people were getting inspiration from it.
You can’t write a price guide. As soon as you get it to a printer it’s out of date.
I think the 70s was the heyday for advertising collectors, a lot of the stuff was being given away for free. In the 80s, with the amount of money flying about, prices started going up. The most expensive enamel sign I ever bought was in 1984. The market has continued to change and today, without a doubt, there are more collectors than there ever were. Its moved from the artists to full-on professional collectors, especially after the bottle digging and every town got the bottle tip and started digging them up and from there you got the antiques fairs with Tiffany lamps and expensive buys. When you could get stuff for nothing, it was a working man’s hobby, free and available. Collecting had very humble beginnings and now it’s this international, class thing.
Collectors Weekly: What are the most sought after advertising antiques?
Renshaw: Porcelain enamel signs are the kings of the advertising world. They’re like a picture and they last and they’re very vibrant and colorful. There’s also enough of them about for everybody to collect them, that’s what’s made them so popular. They also produced so many of them, there’s new ones turning up every week.
I look for items everywhere I can, really. Friends, family, builders I see in the street. I buy off the net, eBay; people offer me stuff through my site. After you put out the word of what you collect people will come to you. And being online definitely helps. I advertise everywhere I can, go to every show I can and put a lot of time and effort into it.
The advertising antiques shows are getting smaller in number, but they are there. In the U.K. it’s a combination of bottle and collectors fairs. The bottle shows pretty much started all of this off, bottles and advertising grew hand and hand. There’s probably about 40 or 50 shows in the U.K. in a year, in all different places. I do think the availability of places to collect has gotten much smaller.
Collectors Weekly: Any recent trends in collecting advertising antiques?
Renshaw: Only that it changes very quickly. You can’t write a price guide because as soon as you get it to a printer it’d be out of date. A lot of these small specialist areas are run by a small group of active collectors and they change on a yearly basis. So prices can change drastically in a year. That’s one of the reasons I think advertising collecting is failing, because one year something is popular and something else is the next. I don’t think you should collect to invest unless you’re collecting across the board.
Collectors Weekly: Any resource books you’d recommend to new advertising collectors, or other advice?
Renshaw: Robert Opie has the world’s greatest collection of advertising, and his books are the primary resource for anything like this. At least get one, because they’re very good and the only ones available.
Also, don’t be scared to handle stuff. The more stuff you handle, the more likely you are to know what’s real and what isn’t. Go to shows and antiques fairs and handle as much as you can because the Internet can be a very deceiving place. If you’re starting from scratch the best thing to do is handle stuff and buy and sell. Never be afraid to sell and be a dealer and collector, there’s very few pure collectors today. If you’re collecting a known subject, I think you really need to deal to get a good collection.
In terms of clubs, there’s the Street Jewelry Society for advertising. There are no general advertising clubs in the U.K., but that Society is an enamel sign-collecting club and will show you just how popular these signs are to collect.
(All images in this article courtesy Advertising Antiques)