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Collecting Mania: Signs of the Times

Updated on May 28, 2010

There's something heartwarming about a hand-lettered sign that advertises farmstand peaches, fresh eggs, or a small-town ice cream parlor's flavors of the day. Whether it's for their pure nostalgia quality or the old-fashioned, simplistic messages, these colorful pieces of Americana have long been magnets both for collectors and for the artisans who strive to replicate them.

A new era in advertising began in the 19th century with the introduction of color lithography. This printing process made it possible to produce several hundred flawless impressions from a single master. With the advent of this mass produced signage, the traditional hand lettered sign started to fade away.

Advertising is as American as apple pie, and older than the nation itself. Colonial trade signs relied more on symbols than on words to relay their messages. As the nation flourished and literacy spread, simple hand-lettered signs began to advertise the staples of everyday life. Most signs were made individually, so they're one of a kind. Each piece is a work of folk art. That's part of the appeal.

The finest placards were the work of professional sign painters who found steady work as America became increasingly mobile throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Decades later, when the Gold Rush lured people out West, new saloons and other enterprises created an explosion in sign making. Decades later, automobile travel gave rise to roadside ads, and technical developments such as the ability to lithograph pictures and messages on tin, allowed signs to be mass-produced.

Most signs were designed to hang outdoors, where they took a real beating from the elements. But even indoor signs endured scratches and discoloration over time. It is this aged appearance that today's collectors crave and contemporary artisans go to great lengths to reproduce.
Many of the artisans who create old-fashioned signs today pride themselves on the care that they take to age each piece. The drawback to their expertise is that unscrupulous or uninformed dealers can pass off reproductions as valuable antiques.

To purchase antiques with confidence, deal only with trusted sources, and learn as much as you can about the look and feel of old pieces. Examine the front and back of a sign. Each should bear marks of age, but the back will typically be less worn than the front, since it most likely hung against a wall. Vintage signs also display nail holes, screw holes, or special hardware that was used to attach the signs to walls. If it's just a board with lettering on it, you have to question how it was attached.
Desirable hand-lettered signs from the 19th and early 20th centuries range from about $200 to several thousand dollars, depending on condition and graphics. Simple mid-20th-century signs can often be found for less than $100.

To reiterate the major salient points of collecting signs: Purchase antiques with confidence by dealing only with trusted sources. Examine the front and back of a sign. Vintage signs also display nail holes, screw holes, or special hardware that attached it to a wall.


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    • billyaustindillon profile image


      8 years ago

      Some great ideas - we have a few signs we have collecting over the years, you give me some wonderful ideas here.


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