There is something so instantly alluring about vintage enamel signs. The rainbow glossy paintwork and the delicate raised relief of the signs have the power to bewitch the onlooker into a lifelong love affair with just one glance. The subject matter of antique enamel signs is equally captivating, offering an escape to a bygone time when cigarette advertisements coexisted with adverts for Pond’s Cold Cream or Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate. Unimaginable in today's world, this form of advertising was considered mainstream until well into the 1930s.
What is a Vintage Enamel Sign?
An enamel sign is a metal plaque that has been coated in layers of vitreous enamel to create a pleasing design. To understand the importance and the appeal of these enamelled signs, one must consider the social context which surrounds them. Witness to decades of vast social change, the signs reflect the daily life of millions of people that experienced a world both before, during and after, the two life-changing world wars.
A Sign of the Changing Times
Imagine a country during the 1800s, knee-deep in the industrial revolution. Its cities churning out clouds of smoke, tall chimneys dominating the changing landscape and factories popping up on every corner. Thick heavy smog that hangs in the air creates a greyish dirt brown filter through which suburban life is witnessed. Terraced houses spread across cities into the countryside like veins on the earth. And, living conditions were extremely poor with famine, disease and crime reaching perilous levels in the shadow of the rapid industrial expansion of towns and cities. This was the scenario in countless cities and towns across the UK and Europe during the 19th century, but the industrial revolution also gave birth to a consumer culture that boomed after the invention of the railway and flourished as literacy rates began to rise.
Vintage Enamel Signs
The First Enamel Signs
In 1859, a man called Benjamin Baugh changed the course of advertising forever when he patented the process of fusing coloured glass particles onto iron plates. This process was named vitreous enamelling and is the same process used to make enamel advertising signage. By the late 19th century, the brightly coloured signs were commonplace on every street corner, enticing people young and old to purchase the advertised wares. The bright colours of the signs and clever, playful slogans brought light into a grim, grey post-industrial landscape. Enamel signage was also used widely for road signs in metropolitan European cities, the most iconic being the ultramarine signage of Paris. Enamel signs were a much-adored everyday object and they grew in popularity across the continent until the onset of WWII, when there was a shortage of metal and anything salvageable, including retro tin signs, was melted down for the war effort. Today the surviving vintage enamel signs are scarce and have become popular auction items.
Vintage Enamel Signs
What is a Vintage Advertising Sign?
Today, enamel signs are considered to be vintage items that are held as prized possessions by avid collectors across the globe. Depending on the rarity of the sign, prices at auctions can reach well into the thousands of pounds. There are many factors behind what makes a vintage enamel sign a collectable item, however, I will share with you some of the key things to know about enamel signs for sale
The Condition of the Vintage Metal Signs
Obviously, the better the condition of the sign the more value it holds. But, good condition can be measured in many ways, including if the vintage tin signs have been retouched or not. A well made and well cared for enamel sign can survive decades without tarnishing or fading, however, the damage occurs when a sign gets chipped. This allows oxygen to get in contact with the exposed metal causing it to rust (oxidate). If a sign has had a rough life, it may also have a few surface scratches. Sometimes these can be buffed away, but any kind of damage or irregularity causes the value to go down.
To Restore or Not to Restore?
The topic of restoration is a touchy subject amongst sign enthusiasts. There are many schools of thought all of which hold competing opinions about whether to retouch signs or not. Certain signs, such as railway signs, score higher prices at auctions when they have been professionally restored, however, there are other signs that collectors prefer to find in their original condition. Restoration should only be done by professionals, if at all. But it's not guaranteed that this will increase the value of the sign. More often than not the contrary is the case, due to the loss of authenticity.
The Visual Appeal of Old Metal Signs
While all enamel signs are designed by hand and made with the utmost precision and care to detail, not all of them hold the same visual appeal for collectors. The more popular the brand advertised, the more appealing it tends to be for collectors. Companies like Coca Cola, Fry's Cocoa, Lyons Tea or R.White’s Ginger Beer are all iconic signs advertising household names. Everyone wants one of these signs in their collection and due to their demand, they have been known to reach dizzyingly high prices at auction. This all boils down to their iconic branding which draws the viewer in and tells them the story of the brand at one glance. Branded signs are engaging and quite often hark back to a bygone era adding a nuance of nostalgia to the visual appeal.
Other lesser-known brands will not be such a collectors item and therefore will not be in such high demand. Most of the time, these vintage enamel signs will score a lower price at auctions since there is less of a demand for them. However, these signs are sometimes sought after by very passionate collectors and due to their scarcity, they can be sold at auction for a surprisingly high price if they are known to be desirable. These signs are most commonly sourced from collectors trading on second hand marketplaces like Ebay, at vintage advertising auctions, and occasionally at flea markets. You are not likely to find vintage enamel signs wholesale stores where you can buy in bulk.
Why are vintage enamel signs so popular?
Good branding is just one factor that boosts the visual appeal of the signs, but many design factors also contribute to a high price tag. The size and shape of the sign plays a big role in the sign’s desirability and methods such as embossing make signs very popular due to the characteristic 3-D shapes created. Colour is also a big factor in boosting a sign’s appeal. The colours need to be rich, eye-catching and inviting, and the beauty of enamel is that there are a wide array of colours available.
The Size of the Retro Metal Signs
A common misconception about porcelain enamel signs is that the larger the sign, the more expensive it will be. This thought is a myth that is often misunderstood by sign novices. When thinking about the value of an enamel sign, practicality is what makes these signs so desirable.
It is often the case that people will be collecting vintage enamel signs to display in their own homes or offices and therefore the amount of wall space is limited. It is no good to spend lots of money on large vintage metal signs if there is nowhere to put them. The most popular size is around 30 x 50 cm (12” x 20”) as this makes the sign easy to display without compromising on the ‘WOW’ factor. In general, the smaller the sign the less valuable it becomes as it loses its visual appeal and impact. So, to increase the chance of your enamel sign selling for a high price, check to see if the dimensions are somewhat in the vicinity 30 x 50 cm (12” x 20”). Signs much larger than that will rarely be more valuable based on the size alone.
The Rarity Factor of the Antique Metal Signs
As mentioned previously, the scarcity of an enamel sign is one of the quickest ways for the price to rise. This could be due to the demand for the sign (such as with the branding example), or it could be due to limited production runs, old age, or location.
Enamel signage first boomed in Europe, however, it wasn’t long before the enamel craze took root in far-flung corners of the globe such as the United States, Australia and Russia. Today, many Australian collectors find themselves paying top dollar prices for signs in Australia due to the limited number of signs available in the country, despite there being many copies of the same sign in the UK, for example. As demand for a sign is high, this pushes the price up.
Limited production runs also contribute greatly to sky-high auction prices. Signs that were produced for a specific event such as a coronation of a monarch or a brand’s anniversary are not just gold dust for collectors, they also provide a window into history. Vintage advertising signs for sale like these are exceptionally rare, but at the same time the collectors can also be few.
Metal Advertising Signs For Your Home
A vintage enamel sign is the icing on the cake for the retro homeowner. It adds an authentic touch to the interior decor as well as being a great ice breaker for starting a conversation when guests come to visit. Whether displayed in the kitchen, bathroom, man cave or garage, a vintage enamel sign is a fun and creative way to make a living space more dynamic.
Adding Vintage Signs to your Home
Perhaps as a collector, you have a wall dedicated to your carefully sourced treasures. A gallery wall of enamel signs is a high impact way of sharing your hobby with the world while also providing you with a reference as to which are in your possession.
For many collectors, the best of all is to enjoy the signs everyday, at absolutely no cost. Unlike a framed poster, or even money sitting in a bank, a vintage enamel sign will most probably keep it’s value over time, if not even increase it’s value. It is both a crash-proof investment, and a unique object of beauty, so the benefit is doubled.
Add Colour to your Walls with Retro Kitchen Signs
The kitchen is a very fun place to display vintage enamel signs since a vast number of advertising signs were used to advertise foods and drinks. If you are known to have a bit of a sweet tooth, then the chocolate and cake brands are sure to take your fancy. On the other hand, if you spend your days counting down the time until happy hour, then gin, brewery, or vintage pub signs are perhaps the designs for you. You could design your own drinks station in the corner of your kitchen and display your chosen bottles and glassware next to your vintage enamel sign.
Vintage Enamel Signs
Retro Metal Garden Signs
Another really common use for vintage enamel signs at home is on the front of your property in the form of house signs. House numbers, nameplates and address plaques are all essential signage for any home. It is possible to find vintage enamel house numbers at markets and auctions and depending on your house number, it shouldn’t be too expensive to add some vintage charm to your entranceway. The classic enamel house number is the ultramarine, Parisian-style blue sign featuring a delicate white trim and white number. This has grown to be an iconic symbol for metropolitan European cities over the last century and it is sure to add a touch of elegance to your property. At RAMSIGN, we have recreated a modern-day version of this vintage sign which now forms the identity of our “Metropolitan” collection.
Vintage Enamel Signs
How Are Vitreous Enamel Signs Produced?
Vintage enamel signs were made during an age when this form of signage was commonplace and therefore required mass production. Big steel factories would make the metal sheets which were then cut down to size and reshaped into perfectly formed signs using methods such as cutting and stamping. The design for these signs would be hand-drawn and converted into stencils so that the chosen design can be transferred onto the metal plate using layers of enamel powder that gets fused with the metal during the firing process. Each colour and each design element is added and fired individually giving the signs their iconic raised relief that so many people love.
Today the production process has not varied too much from the original methods used for vintage industrial signs. Only today, instead of large factories churning out hundreds of enamel signs, it has become an artisan craft. This is due to cheaper alternatives flooding the market such as tin or aluminium which offer a similar aesthetic for a fraction of the cost.
Why Choose Enamel Signs?
However, the material benefits of enamel signage, derived from the production process, make the quality of enamel signs practically unbeatable. No other imitation will be able to withstand sudden changes in temperatures, extreme weather conditions, harsh conditions, vandalism or even the normal wear and tear. The glossy hard enamel surface, if cared for correctly, acts as a protective shield over the metal surface stopping any form of weathering or corrosion, and if the sign should ever be vandalised with graffiti, it can be wiped clean with a solvent and will look as good as new.
Vintage enamel signs are a fantastic way to experience a part of history that has long since disappeared. They are stunning objects of design that can brighten up any corner of your home, man cave, bar or business. And they can be a very lucrative investment too.