Signs of the times:

early American advertising

By Robert Reed

In the early days of this country, symbols were just about the only means of commercial communication to a public that generally could not read.

Trade signs worked so well that vast numbers of them were made and hung about the countryside. Historians note that as early as 1710 trade signs were a common sight in this country.

From 1750 to 1850, there were some 10,000 establishments offering food and lodging to the public. And by law, each place had to openly display a trade sign.

“These large numbers also applied to other states,” note the authors of the comprehensive book, Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design, “but only a minute fraction of such signs have survived to this day.”

 

Advertising Americana

 

The idea of prominent and brightly painted signage on the place of business or hanging on posts just to the edge of the road did not originate in America. It was more of a European practice, particularly in England. However, some would argue that trade signs were even more colorful and stylish once they were established in this country.

“Intended to be seen from afar,” noted an instructional guide produced by the highly regarded Shelburne Museum in Vermont, “trade signs were often brightly painted with strong two-dimensional compositions, or carved on an exaggerated scale.”

Fish markets were likely to have a large fish-shaped sign hanging out in front; a large quill pen might indicate the business of one who wrote letters for the illiterate; and giant-sized eye spectacles would signify the office of an eye doctor or optician.

Yet for all the skill and talent involved in the craft, sign making in the early days wasn’t necessarily a full-time job.

“Ordinarily the purchaser of a shop sign either paid for it in cash or swapped goods, board of lodging,” noted a booklet issued by the Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Foundation decades ago in Virginia.

“For many, such work was a semi-professional means of support that, in small communities, the artist combined with other occupations such as teaching, preaching, shop keeping, and farming, even legal or medical practice.”

Three-dimensional sculptures often were created by carvers, but carpenters and painters were later involved in the more elaborate projects. Even blacksmiths contributed collectively to a proudly finished sign.

Few original craftsmen signed their names to a completed work, and the few names that were added were often obliterated in the years ahead by the addition of several coats of paint. As popularity and costs of signs increased, shop owners began to realize how expensive they were to produce. Therefore, it made more sense to repair them than replace them.

At one point in trade sign history competition for remaining business was undoubtedly keen. In 1788 artist-carver James Webster issued a newspaper advertisement which declared:

“Reports have been circulated that his (Webster’s) charges are more extravagant than others that work at that business; and he wishes to acquaint the public that those reports are without foundation and circulated with a view to injure him in his business.”

Words and images unite

Despite the country’s increase in literacy throughout the 19th century, many proprietors continued to use the basic and traditional symbol-signs, appreciating their effectiveness in attracting customers. Still others chose to combine both the symbols and words for what they hoped would be even more successful advertising.

A trade sign made in the 1830s for the New England store W.I. Good and Groceries featured a deep blue cobalt glass, a rectangular pine panel and gilt lettering. It was just over 18 inches tall and 72 inches wide.

 

A mid-19th century trade sign for the Norfolk Tavern was double-sided and included iron mounts. Some 24 inches tall and 33 inches wide, it sported blue lettering on a cream-colored background. Another sign of that period was fashioned from painted pine and listed the word ‘Bank’ in white letters accented with a wavy touch of green. It was signed T.D. Head.

Trade signs remained a staple throughout the 19th century but gradually transitioned from symbols to symbols and words, and ultimately to just a simple word or two.

 

Toward the latter part of that century, a boot maker’s trade sign promoting the establishment of John Vogler featured the owner’s name and the images of both a man’s and a woman’s boot. It was inscribed “O’Rourke & Duel Lake Ave. & Front St.” and measured about 21 by 33 inches.

That double-sided, rectangular Vogler sign with black paint and lettering recently sold for more than $4,700 at a Skinner Inc. auction.

Another offering from Skinner was a paper hanging trade sign used in Pennsylvania around 1885. It bore a rectangular panel with chamfered or beveled edges and breadboard ends. It was painted white on a blue cobalt glass background. It was nine inches tall and more than 72 inches wide.

Somewhere between the late 19th century and the early 20th century a trade sign was produced promoting the Boston American newspaper. The plywood panel of the sign was painted and also given applied carved letters. It was further decorated with an American eagle and a shield motif, plus an inscription reading, “A Clean Reliable Fearless Newspaper.”

Various trade signs still were being produced during the 20th century although in far less numbers than before.

A milk/sandwich trade sign from the early 20th century was made of galvanized metal. It had a wood frame and painted black lettering on a white background. It measured 18 by 28 inches.

Specialized catalogs offered trade signs as late as the 1940s. A 24-inch example of huge eyeglasses made of zinc tubing was priced at $6.25 in 1941. There were also eight other ‘eyeglass’ sign sizes available for purchase.

 

Nostalgia abounds in old country store signs
by Rhiannon Ross

Vintage trade and advertising signs are among the most coveted of collectible American folk art.

Trade signs are a hot commodity in antique shops. (photo by Rhiannon Ross)

That’s if you’re lucky enough to even find them.

“Trade signs go pretty fast when they come in,” says Lawrie Cummins, store manager at Henry’s Antiques and Collectibles, in Lee’s Summit, MO. “There just aren’t that many around.”

“Trade signs are one of our best-selling items,” says Charla Henry, owner of Henry’s. “We can hardly keep them in the store.”

Marti Huff, a dealer at Mission Road Antiques and Collectibles in Prairie Village, KS, agrees with them.

“You don’t find trade signs like you used to,” she says. “It’s a rare find and a real find when you do.”

Trade signs have become scant over the years, Huff says, because often when country stores closed, they auctioned off items.

“Or, sometimes things ended up in the trash,” she adds.

Today, prices for vintage trade and advertising signs can range from under $100 to several thousand dollars, depending on the age, type and quality of the sign.

Tin pocket watch trade sign, 19th century, $1,495 (from the collection of Henry Goben)

Two antique trade signs are on display in Henry Goben’s booth at Mission Road Antiques. An early 19th century tin pocket watch trade sign, which once hung outside a watch repair shop, is priced at $1,495. A handmade, tin trade sign of a woman’s boot—boasting the words “Cobbler Shoppe”—is listed for $295.

Once shopkeepers succeeded in getting patrons inside their doors, they didn’t stop trying to market their wares. Smaller advertising signs, many of which were tin, also touted the benefits of products such as soda pop, cigarettes, coffee and even laxatives.

Huff features several examples of tin and paper advertising signs in her booth, ranging in price from $57.50 each for two 1940s Whistle Orange Drink signs to $245 for a 1920s Feen-a-mint chewing gum laxative sign.

Huff, 85, well remembers her mother giving her Feen-a-mint gum as a child.

“And yes, it worked!” she says, laughing.

Soda pop signs advertising Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, orange crush and grapette also are popular collector’s items, Cummins says. And increasingly, she adds, people are searching for historic U.S. Route 66 signage.

But collectors aren’t the only ones in search of vintage trade and advertising signs.

Both Cummins and Huff say that people enjoy incorporating these signs in today’s home décor, especially if they have a country design motif. And vintage signs that deal with food and beverages are popularly displayed in kitchens.

Huff believes she knows what draws many people to what she fondly calls “country store” signs.

“It’s about nostalgia for a time gone by,” she says. “It’s about our childhoods. And it’s also about how our forefathers carried on business.”

Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com.