In the U.S., most outdoor signs made between 1890 and and 1950 were constructed of a base of heavy rolled iron, which was die cut into the desired shape, then coated with layers of colored powdered glass and fired in a kiln.
This process made them durable and weather-resistant. Signs made this way were known as porcelain enamel signs or simply enamel signs.
Porcelain enamel signs originated in Germany and were imported into the U.S. They quickly became a staple of outdoor advertising across the country. Around 1900, designers experimented with bold colors and graphics on the signs and they were used to advertise everything from cigarettes and beer to farm equipment and tires. Early designs were stenciled, but American designers switched to silkscreens and started using a steel base instead of iron. Later, when porcelain enamel became too costly, tin bases were used instead of steel.
Now it is difficult to find antique porcelain enamel signs in excellent condition. Collectors pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for each addition to their collections. Many of the signs were vandalized, discarded due to etching or crazing in the finish or melted down for the metal during World War II. After the war, the signs were too expensive to manufacture, so we are left with only the dazzling pieces that remain from the era.
Signs were later made of tin and other materials and painted with enamel paint. More of these types of signs remain, but they are often rusted, scratched and distressed. After WWII, “enamel” signs were simply enamel paint on a metal, usually tin, base.
There is a huge market for vintage signs and collectors must be wary of distressed reproductions. Often vintage signs are stamped with the date they were manufactured, while other times research and knowledge about antique signs may be required to discern a real antique from a knockoff.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- Celebration of Vintage and Retro Design
- Retro and Vintage in Modern Web Design
- 35 Beautiful Vintage and Retro Photoshop Tutorials
- Vintage and Retro Typography Showcase
Rare and Unusual Antique, Vintage and Retro Signs
Vintage Tin 7up Display Sign This vintage 7up sign was made to be attached to the rods of a wire display inside a store. It is believed to have been manufactured in the 1950s or 1960s by the Indiana Wire and Specialty Company of Indianapolis, Indiana and measures 12” x 12”.
Vintage 7up Enamel Painted Store Sign This 7up sign is stamped metal and is painted with enamel paint. It measures 20” x 18” and was manufactured in 1963 by Stout Sign Co. in St. Louis.
Southwestern Bell Porcelain Sign This is a large metal Southwestern Bell sign, measuring approximately 28” to 30” tall and 19” to 20” wide. This sign is still faily shiny, but does have a few chips and some rust spots.
Chevrolet Bel Air Dealer Poster In the 1950s, car dealerships used posters like this one as indoor signage. These posters were eye-catching and colorful and could be easily changed when new models were introduced.
Vintage Tin Hrobak’s Beverages Sign This is a rare sign from Hrobak’s Beverages in Philadelphia. It is believed to have been made in the 1940s and measures approximately 20” x 9”.
Blue Bell Tobacco Porcelain Sign This is a heavy steel and porcelain double sided sign. It measures 14” x 22” and is in great shape for its age.
Antique Buick Dealership Sign This is an antique neon sign from a Buick car dealership. It was likely manufactured in the 1950s.
Cadbury’s Chocolate Enamel Sign Cadbury’s chocolate is a favorite in Europe, which is likely where this antique painted enamel sign was made.
Canada Dry Beverages Porcelain Sign This vintage sign is porcelain over metal and was manufactured for Canada Dry Beverages. It measures 24” x 7” and has chips in the porcelain and rust on the base. Despite its flaws, it is still a valuable collectors item.
Chesterfield Cigarettes Sign This vintage Chesterfield Cigarettes sign was found hanging on the side of a shed at a gas station in North Carolina. Its age is unknown, but it is authentic. It measures 34” x 12” and was likely manufactured in the 1930s or 1940s.
** Stothers Chest & Lung Mixture Sign** This vintage sign was likely made in the 1940s. While is is slightly warped along the bottom, it is still in good condition for its age.
Large Vintage Coca-Cola Sign This 1939 Coca-Cola sign remains in the wooden frame in which it was originally shipped. It measures 71.5” x 35.75 and has some dents and surface rust, but is still a nice piece for a collector.
Rare Coca-Cola Cardboard Sign This Coca-Cola sign is printed on cardboard and measures 20” x 36”. It was shrink wrapped onto an acid-free backing board. Printed during the war in 1944, it features two young woman pointing to the area on the globe where their men are serving.
Post-WWII Cardboard Coca-Cola Sign After WWII, signs had to be made more inexpensively. One option used by Coca-Cola were cardboard signs. This Coca-Cola sign was made in 1948 by Edwards & Deutsch Lith Co. in Chicago and measures 27” x 16”.
Congress Beer Pressed Tin Sign This pressed tin sign advertises Congress Beer, which was made by the Haberle Congress Brewing Company in Syracuse, New York. Age has yellowed the lettering on the sign, but it is otherwise in good condition and is a nice collectors item.
Wolf’s Head Oil & Lubes This unique sign was produced in the 1940s and is 22” x 17”. It is an original piece and has been preserved over the years so that it remains in excellent condition. This type of sign in this condition is rather rare and is sought after by the choosiest collectors.
Crown Gasoline Double Sided Porcelain Sign This Crown Gasoine Standard Oil Company sign is double sided, which is somewhat unusal for a porcelain sign. It measures 26” square and is showing signs of its age, but is still extremely valuable.
Dad’s Root Beer Tin Sign This is a 1950s Dad’s Rootbeer sign measuring 27” x 13”. It is enamel paint on a tin base and has rusted a bit around the edges.
Delaware Quality Feeds Metal Sign This vintage Delaware Quality Feeds sign doubled as a public service announcement to warn of an upcoming cow pass. This unique piece measures 12” x 15” and is extremely weathered.
Vintage Dr. Pepper Metal Sign This style of Dr. Pepper sign was introduced in 1958 and discontinued in the early 1970s. It measures approximately 20” x 7” and is constructed of thin sheet metal and enamel paint.
Extremely Rare Eldredge Brewing Company Sign This antique sign was produced in the 1800s for Eldredge Brewing Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is marked “Wells & Hope Co. Pat Metallic Advertising Signs, Philada, P.A.” and features an image of a man and a woman enjoying Eldredge lager beer. It measures 20” x 29” and aside from some minor wear around the edges, is in wonderful condition.
“Standard” Esso Porcelain Sign The essense of vintage Americana, this large porcelain Esso sign is a valuable collectors item. Esso stations were the original ExxonMobile gas stations and these signs were once very common along U.S. roadways.
Vintage Foot Rest Hosiery Sign This vintage sign measures 11.25” x 17.25 and is constructed of tin with a cardboard backing. The image of the child holding the sign is one example of classic antique advertising.
Vintage Coca-Cola Fountain Service Sign This porcelain sign was made in 1933. It measures 25.5” x 23” and shows some signs of its age, but is still a sought-after collectors item.
Mitchell’s “Golden Dawn” Cigarettes Made in an era when smoking cigarettes was glamorized, this tin enamel sign is was designed to be simple and shiny. The name of the company and little else is displayed on the face, which is now chipped and rusting with age.
Unique Good Year Tire Porcelain Signs These winged Good Year Tire porcelain signs are embossed on the back with “Property of Good Year Rubber Company W-73”. These are large signs, with the larger one measuring 64” x 23” and the smaller measuring 46.5” x 17”. Both signs were originally white, but a clear lacquer has yellowed the smaller one.
Hi-Plane Tobacco Sign This 1940s tin store sign advertises an all but forgotten brand of tobacco. It measures 35” x 12” and is a colorful collectors item.
Vintage Hires Root Beer Sign This vintage Hires Root Beer sign measures 9.5” x 27.5” and was manufactured by Press Sign Co. in St. Louis.
Merry War Lye Sign This vintage Merry War Lye sign was made in the 1940s. It was found in the back room of an old general store and measures 14” x 11”.
Kool Cigarettes Sign This store sign was made in the 1950s to advertise Kool cigarettes. It measures 26” x 11” and has raised letters and design.
Leaf Spearmint Gum Sign This Leaf Spearmint Gum sign was made in the 1940s and measures 25” x 9” and is in fairly good condition for its age. Its colorful design makes it a popular collectors item.
Miller “High Life” Beverages Sign This sign is an original advertisement for Miller “High Life” Beverages. It was made in the 1940s and measures 20” x 13.5”.
MobileGas Porcelain Restroom Pledge Sign This heavy porcelain sign is measures 7.5” x 7.75”. It is a rare and nostalgic piece, bound to bring back memories of the time when customer service was everything.
Vintage Mr. Cola Sign This unique Mr. Cola sign was made in 1945 by Stout Sign Co. of St. Louis. It measures 11.75 square and the lettering is embossed.
Muratti’s Cigarettes Sign This colorful tin sign is an antique lithographed advertisement for Muratti’s cigarettes. A collectors item for sure, the sign promotes cigarettes for “young ladies.”
Old Virginia Cheroots Sign This turn of the century sign measures 8.5” square and is extremely rare. The graphic is lithographed onto a tin base
Green Spot Orange Drink Sign This vintage Green Spot Orange Drink sign was used on an in-store advertising rack. It measured 22” x 19” and was manufactured by Arnamac Products Inc. in Cincinatti, Ohio.
Pabst Blue Ribbon Sign This is a 1940s Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign constructed of tin over cardboard, which advertises beer for 15 cents.
Pee Gee Paint Sign This double sided porcelain Pee Gee Paint sign was made in the early 1920s. Although it is definitely showing some age, it is sitll very valuable to collectors.
Vintage Cardboard Pepsi-Cola Sign This vintage Pepsi-Cola sign was made in the 1950s and measures 8.25” x 15”. During this time period, companies were tring to save money and printing on thick cardboard was cheaper than making metal signs.
Phillips 66 Porcelain Sign This porcelain Phillips 66 sign was made in 1945. It is a double sided sign and likely one of the last porcelain signs of its kind. It was manufactured by Veribrite Signs in Chicago.
Red Coon Tobacco Sign This brightly colored vintage sign measures 10” x 14”.
Vintage Redman Tobacco Die Cut Paper Sign This original die cut Redman Tobacco sign is believed to have been made in the 1950s. It measures 20.5” x 15.5,” is made of paper and is in remarkably good condition.
Antique Railroad Sign This antique railroad crossing sign is stamped on the back with “National Colortype Co. Signs and Signals, Bellvue, K.Y.” It is constructed of metal and has cat eye marble reflectors.
Antique Railroad Stop Sign This antique railroad stop sign has cat-eye marbles spelling out the word “Stop,” making it a unique collectors item.
Senior Service Tobacco Sign This unique sign is believed to have been made in the 1930s and measures 12” x 4”.
Porcelain No Smoking Gas Station Sign This vintage porcelain “No Smoking” sign came from a gas station. It is still in very good condition and measures 18” x 5.5”.
Vintage Squirt Soda Sign This tin sign advertising Squirt soda was made in 1958. It features an embossed design and measures 27.5” x 9”.
Standard Feeds Metal Sign This old metal farm sign measures 23.5” x 11.75”. It is an original made by Stout Sign Co. of St. Louis, Missouri.
Porcelain Star Tobacco Sign This is a very early porcelain sign, likely made at the turn of the century. Signs this old and in this condition are rare and quite valuable.
Double Sided Star Motor Gasoline Sign This double sided flange metal sign is measures about 12” in diameter. It is an original sign, likely produced in the 40s.
Raybestos Brake Service This rare vintage sign is double sided and flanged and measures 18” x 13.75”. It is believed to have been made in the 1950s.
Sunbeam Bread Door Push Plate This is a door push plate measuring 4” x 12”. It was produced in 1953, but never used, which makes it a rare item for the serious collector.
Vintage John Graf Sylvan Dry Soda Sign This is a vintage tin sign that measures 20” x 11.5”. It was manufactured by Donaldson Art Sign in the 1940s.
Allied Mills Inc. Wayne Feeds Sign This is an original die cut Allied Mills Inc, Wayne Feeds tin sign. It measures 14” x16” and is believed to have been made in the early 1930s.
Vintage Whistle Soda Sign This 19” x 27” tin Whistle soda sign is believed to have been made in the 1930s. It features embossing on the entire design and lettering on the sign state it was manufactured by “The American Art Works, Inc., Coshocton, O.”
Sweet-ORR Porcelain Sign Sweet-ORR produced Union Made pants, shirts and overalls. This 23.5” x 10” porcelain sign has some wear, but is still in relatively good condition and would be valuable to a collector.
Dairy Queen License Plate Topper This metal 6.25” license plate topper was made in the 1960s. Because this one was never used, it remains in perfect condition.
Antique Beech-Nut Tobacco Porcelain Sign This is an original Regina Beech-Nut tobacco 12” x 9” porcelain sign, showing signs of its age on the edges.