The signs of our times - Collectible vintage signs reflect the evolution of our culture

story and photos by Leigh Elmore

If you walk into any antique mall these days you are almost certain to find a number of dealers offering antique and vintage advertising signs. In fact, signs have become some of the hottest selling items in the vintage trade.

A hand-painted sign of the iconic Sunbeam Bread girl was for sale at a recent antique show in Walnut, IA.

The reasons are myriad. Signs for products of yesteryear invoke a sense of nostalgia in many as they seek to remind themselves of the products seen or used in their youth. Just about every American adult drives a car and the automobile and truck categories are extremely popular, especially with men. Furthermore, the "man cave" trend of the last few years has provided a setting for old signs to be displayed in an appropriate place other than the living room wall.

A recent visit to the Midway Antique Mall near Columbia, MO accentuates the point. Several walls are plastered with collectible signs and many dealer booths have at least a sign or two for sale.

"You would be surprised to learn who collects signs," said Dorthamae Patrick who operates Dorthamae's Gifts and Antiques at the mall. "It could be a girl, a grandmother, an old farmer or a city guy.

"Signs seem to appeal to many different types of people. And they are very passionate about it. Old signs hearken back to another time," she said.

Patrick has a personal fondness for hand-painted signs that were frequently used in diners.

They may not call it Bupane anymore, but this porcelain enamel sign advertised it when it was available.

"Of course as they have become more popular, signs have become more expensive," Patrick said. Prices for signs are all over the map, but truly antique signs in excellent condition can bring prices in the five figures in some cases. Patrick attributed some of the excitement surrounding old signs to the guys on television's "American Pickers" who have a passion for old automotive advertising signs. Of course, the huge Baby Boom generation now entering retirement have fond memories of the days when most transactions were made face-to-face and of the signs that drove commerce before the Internet age.

"We all remember seeing iconic signage when we were driving down the road in the back of our parents' station wagon," writes John Mancino for The Journal of Antiques. "Gas stations, hotels, motels, diners, and restaurants all had great advertising back in the day. We were exposed to it on a daily basis. As we get older we long for those days. Collecting signs brings us there."

And while there are several websites that specialize in vintage signage, "Personally, I like to get out and buy face-to-face. At a show or sale, you can handle the item, make a deal and move on," Mancino stated. "You can see and feel the condition of the item. The Internet takes that out of the equation. Don't get me wrong, the Internet is still a good place to find things but it's not as personal as the face-to-face transaction."

Although some collectors focus exclusively on signs, many pursue the hobby as an adjunct to another collecting interest. Therefore, antique and vintage signs related to subjects like automobile, travel, farm, food, smoking, beer, and railroads are in high demand.

A brief history of signage

A booth at the Midway Antique Mall demonstrates that almost any dealer will sell signs along with their other merchandise.

In 17th- and 18th-century Europe and early America, most of the population was illiterate, so shopkeepers often used figural signs outside their businesses to attract customers: Barbers used a pole painted with red, white, and blue stripes in a corkscrew pattern, pharmacists used "show globes" filled with colored liquid, pawn shops displayed three golden balls, and tobacco shops placed wooden statues of Native Americans outside their doors, according to information gleaned from Collector's Weekly.

During the 18th century in Europe and America, more and more merchants chose simple wooden signs in square, rectangular or round shapes hand-painted with the minimal amount of words to convey what services were offered inside, like "Boarding Rooms" or "Tavern."

By the early 19th century, businesses began to use hand-painted and then stenciled tin signs, while the art of hand-lettering and hand-painting walls, windows, and billboards was just beginning to blossom. As industry flourished in post-Civil War America, branding, logos and other markers to distinguish products became incredibly important to competing manufacturers. Artisans who hand-painted signs excelled in gorgeous, eye-popping lettering and helped companies like Coca-Cola develop their logos. Some of the most collectible signs are lithographed tin signs from the late 19th century.

Those types of signs were then superseded by "porcelain" signs of the early 20th century which are actually enamel coatings that contained powdered glass that created a weather-tight sealed sign when baked at a high temperature. As more techniques were developed in the United States, manufacturers turned to lighter weight steel and improved enameling techniques. Tens of thousands of these types of signs were made because they could withstand all types of weather and would last a long time.

But with the onset of World War II many aging metal signs were considered scrap and melted down, which has contributed to their rarity today.


What makes a sign collectible?

Remember when Moon Pies cost only a nickle?

As with many items for sale in the vintage markets, condition is key to value. Plus, there have been many facsimiles made of old signs, so buyers need to be aware of what they are looking at to ensure it is really an older item.

There are four factors to consider in the value of a vintage sign, according to Jim Oswald, an antique sign collector from way back and featured on "Age, rarity, graphics and condition."

The graphics are why Oswald got into collecting. "I love the art of the old signs and so everything that I collect, I try to collect things that have a lot of graphics."

Signs created in shapes, especially relating to the product are more valuable.
"The older the sign, the better the graphics. These signs will last 500-600 years. The signs are steel base, sprayed with porcelain and baked. If you drop it, it will chip or break."

This wall of facsimile signs on display at the Midway Antique Mall near Columbia, MO shows just how diverse advertising signage can be.

Age, however, is not the defining aspect in determining the value of a sign, according to information on the website for Manifest Auctions, (, which specializes in signage. "If you have two of the exact same sign and one is five years or ten years older than the other, they still have the same value to collectors," according to Manifest.

"Collectors are after signs for the display factor and how they look. The date of a sign can be helpful in authenticating it, but usually it's easier to authenticate a sign by looking at other features."

The brand a particular sign is advertising for is also an important component to value, according to Manifest. "Many collectors will focus on one or two brands to build their collection around, so someone trying to get a sign for their brand that may seem otherwise unimportant can get increased value if there is a large group of collectors focused on that brand, this is part of the reason so many gas and oil signs sell for such high prices."

A collage like display at a recent Antique Week in Round Top, TX has a hand-painted sign and a porcelain-enamel thermometer advertising Sunbeam Bread.

Manifest sees three categories of signs for collectors:

• Entry level signs which include a lot of generic terms such as "No Trespassing," etc. and made in the late 20th century are most common and rarely exceed $300 or so in cost.

• Mid-level signs usually sell for $300-$1000 and include signs that are somewhat scarce, have moderate demand, or for whatever reason collectors are willing to pay elevated prices for. If your sign is at least 30- inches long and in good condition, it probably qualifies as a mid-level sign, if it is from a good brand. 

• High-end collectible signs are those that advanced, experienced, and wealthy collectors are actively looking for. This usually means that these signs are fairly rare and don't come up for sale often, but sometimes it just means that the sign is really cool and people are willing to spend a lot of money for one. This combination of rarity and demand drives prices up into the thousands of dollars for high-level signs in today's market.

"If you are new to the hobby and want to get started collecting, get out and look around," said collector John Mancino. "Scour the Internet looking for shows, events and auctions, and get out and meet other people with the same interests. You will be surprised how friendly other collectors are; we all enjoy the same things. Go to shows, meet the dealers and ask plenty of questions.

"And buy what you like," Mancino said. "Don't try to buy as an investment. Although signs have increased in value over the years, trying to invest in them may get you burnt. If you buy what you like you will always be happy with what you purchase."

The sign for Owl Cigars was painted by Richard Brooks of Clinton, MO

Types of signs to collect:

Hand-painted or stenciled – Probably among the most rare types of signs available since they were not mass-produced.

Lithographed tin signs – These are more prevalent because even though used outdoors, they could withstand most weather conditions. However, even those in the best condition probably with have some rust.

Porcelain enamel signs – Dating from early-to mid-20th century. The earliest were imported from Germany with iron bases. Lighter steel was used in the United States and usually silk-screened.
Lighted signs – Neon was popular in the mid-20th century and later incandescent bulbs were incorporated into clocks and beer signs.

A reproduction of an early 20th century sign for Sinclair Oil. Automotive related products are some of the hottest collectible signs.


Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

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