Prior to the 1940s, brightly colored porcelain signs dotted the landscape of American cities, towns and rural areas. Porcelain signs identified street names and subway stops, displayed advertising messages, provided warnings such as and identified places of business. Collectors seek all sorts of vintage porcelain signs, and contemporary sign makers still manufacture porcelain signs in 2011. Porcelain signs have vibrant colors that don't fade over time.
History of Porcelain Signs
The process of enameling, or fusing glass to a surface, dates back about 2,000 years. Some of the oldest examples of enamel work include religious items and decorative objects such as Faberge eggs with gems embedded into the porcelain. During 1850s, enameled porcelain signs made their debut in Europe as house numbers. In the 1920s, automobile manufacturers used porcelain signs for advertising. Many porcelain signs -- which have molded iron structures -- didn't survive World War II, because the war effort needed the metal for building military vehicles and supplies. During the 1950s, the high cost of labor made other kinds of signs more practical than porcelain.
Composition of Porcelain Signs
The colors in porcelain signs come from metal oxides mixed with clear powdered glass fused at high temperatures to a molded iron base. The high-temperature firing process allows porcelain enamel colors to retain their intensity over time. Some vintage porcelain signs had messages on both sides and others included novelty items such as clocks to attract the interest of viewers.
Popularity of Porcelain Signs for Collectors
Collectors look for old themed signs from industries and businesses such as gas stations, soft drink companies, automobile manufacturers, breweries and snack food makers. Other vintage porcelain signs include highway and street signs, telephone booth signs and business signs for everything from barber shops to pharmacies. Authentic vintage porcelain signs may have the manufacturing date stamped somewhere on the sign. Collectors should obtain as much information as possible before purchasing a sign to ensure its authenticity.
Value of Vintage Porcelain Signs
In April, 2010, an Asian buyer paid $116,500 for a vintage porcelain "Wall St." sign pitted with shrapnel marks from a famous dynamite explosion known as the "Wall Street Bombing of 1920." In April, 2011, a rare vintage porcelain "Minute Man Service" Union gas station sign sold at auction for $12,938. Another porcelain gas station sign sold for $4,600. Collectors can obtain porcelain signs at reasonably affordable prices, depending on the condition and rarity of the sign.
Preserving Porcelain Signs
To preserve porcelain signs, wash with soap and water or glass cleaner. If rust develops in scratched areas on a porcelain sign, the porcelain will prevent the rust from damaging a larger area. Remove the rust with fine grit steel wool and use a cold enamel jewelry epoxy or enamel paint for touch-ups. Do not repair dents in enamel signs.
- National Park Service; The Preservation of Historic Signs; Michael Auer; October1991
- Porcelain Enamel Signs; Porcelain Enamel -- A Fascinating Story; November 2010
- Collectors Weekly: Vintage Automobile Signs
- Collectors Weekly: Vintage Signs
- Auction Central News; Minute Man Porcelain Gas Sign Pumps Top Price . . .; Auction House PR; April 2011
- Smashing Magazine; 60 Rare and Unusual Vintage Signs; Gerri Elder; June 2009
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images
- Collectors Weekly: Vintage Travel and Highway Signs
- The Queens Gazette; Ridgewood Garbageman Rescues Treasures From the Past; Jason Antos; February 2011
- AIGA; The (Mostly) True Story of Helvetica and the New York Subway Station; Paul Shaw; November 2008
- CNN; Vintage Wall Street Sign Fetches Over $100,000 at Auction; Jesse Solomon; June 22, 2010
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