Nostalgic tin & paper advertising signs
The vintage 1965 New York World’s Fair advertising sign sparked a memory for my auction buddy Janet.
“I got sick and I couldn’t go,” she said, missing her chance to give up a buck to see exhibitions as varied as the emerging Space Age to futuristic cars to Disney’s animatronics. That absence was her memory of a “playground” not far away in Queens, NY, but off-limits to her in Brooklyn.
This was the fair’s second six-month run in New York. It had its first run the year before, and is actually known as the 1964 World’s Fair.
I have no memories of any world’s fair or its signs. But I do remember that ubiquitous series of small Burma shave cream signs with rhyme after rhyme exhorting men to try it (the signs were discontinued in 1963 and were said to have been removed, but they seemed to have lived alongside the highways for years afterward). Or the signs on the tin roofs of barns in rural areas, which was much of what my home state of Georgia was at the time.
The red, white and blue framed World’s Fair sign was among several hanging on a wall at an auction house we visited recently. Nearby was an Armour Franks hot dog sign. I didn’t grow up with those dogs. We ate what were called red links, which were more sausage than dogs and were likely stained red with some awful dye. They looked like the hot dogs my travel buddy Kristin refused to consume during our New England trip in September.
The Armour Franks sign looked to be authentic, and it was actually a neat little sign with a boy enjoying a bite from his hot dog. One like it sold for $500 at one auction last year and $145 at a TGI Friday’s memorabilia sale in Ohio in 2007. The one at the auction I attended sold for $40.
The advertising on the signs – from hot dogs to a tonic for chickens (sold for $15) to cigars (sold as a pair for $35) – was as eclectic as the materials they were made from – from framed paper to tin. The most recognizable was a big blue and white two-sided Western Union sign (sold for $150) that pointed to a place that most of us have used at one time or another. The World’s Fair sign sold for $200.
I like the old signs for their nostalgia, but I’m not into collecting them. I have a small reproduction sign hanging in my basement bathroom announcing baths for 35 cents (soap extra). I found plenty of sites on the web selling repro and retro signs.
In my garage, I have an authentic bent-up rusted sign for King Kard Overalls, which seemed to have been around in the 1930s and 1940s, that I got as part of a box lot of items, as I recall, from a museum deaccession. Attached to it was a handwritten tag with “archeology from I95” – maybe it was uncovered during work on the interstate highway. It’s not likely worth anything because of the condition, based on what I read in a Collector’s Weekly article on the web. I did find a clean less-marred sign like it that sold for $1,150 at auction in 2008.
“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,” according to Collector’s Weekly.
“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.”
Tin advertising signs first appeared around the beginning of the 19th century and competed with paper posters as an advertising medium. By the end of the century, color lithography made it possible to stamp images onto the tins and make the signs even useful and attractive. Even better, they could be placed outside a business and withstand the elements.
Because they were so expensive to make, most advertisers loaned them to business rather than giving them away. according to Collector’s Weekly. They were used to sell everything from Coca Cola to gasoline to beer. From the 1890s to the 1950s, many of the advertising signs and other such items were made in Coshocton, OH.
By the 1870s, companies were advertising their products on a little bit of everything, so much so that some states started limiting sign painting on rocks, buildings and barns to preserve nature, according to the Duke University Library, which has amassed a collection of newspaper and magazine advertising memorabilia.
The signs were even used to sell the nation’s notion of the inferiority of African Americans with their stereotypical images. A collector of African American memorabilia has an 1898 whiskey sign with a black family along with chickens and watermelons.
Tin signs were most popular in the 1920s but got major competition from porcelain enamel signs (powdered glass on iron) that could withstand the weather without rusting. Both types, however, were melted down for their metal during World War II, and they were later replaced by plastic and steel signs.
Some of the most collectible of porcelain signs are gasoline logos of old and new companies, according to Collector’s Weekly. Add to that the old country store signs.
One collector noted that large signs are likely to be cheaper to purchase because people don’t have a spot to hang them. That wasn’t the case at a Spaghetti Warehouse restaurant auction I attended a couple years ago when a big red Mobil Pegasus sign sold for $3,500.
I think it depends on what you’re looking for in a sign and how you plan to use it. Do you collect advertising signs? Have you incorporated any in your home? I’d love to know. Drop me a line in the comment box below.