Objects of Desire: Vintage Enamel Signs
What makes vintage signs so appealing? For anybody interested in advertising, graphic design and typography, antique signs can provide a fascinating look into the history of type and logo design–and even slogans. They also can be a pictorial history of industrial design. An illustration of an old soda bottle or car are some of curious details you may discover. Vintage signs can transport you to another time and place, as well as paint a picture of aspirations of that era.
With their vivid, high gloss finish, porcelain enamel vintage signs are beautiful as stand-alone objects. For collectors and decorators, retro signs have become a popular novelty and decorative items, far removed from their purely commercial roots.
The Origins of Porcelain Enamel Signs
Developed and perfected in Europe, porcelain enamel techniques brought new possibilities for the production of high quality, durable signs. During fabrication, a powdered glass composition (frit) is applied in layers to a metal base. The lettering is carefully stenciled on by hand. The sign is then fired in a kiln, which causes the glass and metal to bond.
Porcelain enamel is more than a surface paint. When heated to high temperatures, metal becomes porous. The liquid glass seeps into the small openings, and the metal and glass become structurally one. Vintage signs made with porcelain enamel maintain this bond and, therefore, their quality.
The Dawn of the 20th Century: A New Material for Outdoor Advertising
In the late 1890s, porcelain enamel signs made their way across the Atlantic to the United States. The techniques were quickly adopted by artisans and fabricators. They experimented with bold color and different techniques to create new designs. Because of their durability, porcelain enamel signs were a boon for outdoor advertising. Resistant to rain, snow, wind and sun, these signs were industrial strength. Above all, porcelain enamel signs were colorful and stunning, a perfect way to catch the eye of a passer-by.
Save Scrap for Victory! The Great Disappearing Act
In the United States, WWII brought scrap metal drives. Across the country citizens were encouraged to contribute scrap metal and other materials to help the war effort. Pots, pans, iron fences, all metal was game–including porcelain enamel signs. The scrap metal was melted down so it could be transformed into tanks, ships, and weapons. By the end of the WWII, the production of porcelain enamel signs had seen its peak. The dye was cast, signs of this material were to become the collectible antique signs of the future.
After the War: The Next Generation of Signs
After WWII, sign manufacturers began to experiment with and use other materials. The plastic industry started to grow by leaps and bound and new commercial uses for plastics were rapidly being introduced. Metal sign fabrication shifted course. Due to the high cost of manufacturing porcelain enamel signs, steel metal bases were replaced with tin, a much thinner material. The glassy hand-stenciled porcelain enamel surfaces gave way to enamel paint, which does not have the bonding properties of porcelain enamel. While tin signs lowered the bottom line and contributed to more efficient mass production, the overall value of the signs diminished. Tin signs are not as durable as porcelain enamel signs and, as a result, they are a more disposable version of the now sought-after vintage enamel signs.
The Rise of Collectible Antique Signs
Although there are many metal-based vintage signs for sale, relatively few of them are porcelain enamel signs. The scarcity is due to the destruction of signs, discontinued production, and the neglect of existing signs. Unfortunately, improper care–particularly when mounting the sign–can cause small fractures in the porcelain enamel. Once there is pathway for moisture to enter, it will seep in and compromise the metal substrate. Imperfections are commonly seen around the edges of antique signs made with porcelain enamel.
Although it is difficult to find a vintage enamel sign in pristine condition, a sign that was well cared for will be as glossy and vibrant as it was when it was made. Because of this, mint condition porcelain enamel vintage signs are highly valued.
Modern Reproductions of Retro Signs
The fact that vintage signs can evoke nostalgia–even in those who did not live through the period–is a testament to the power of graphic design. Retro signs made of tin are popular, but the lasting artistry of a porcelain enamel sign makes these antique signs even more alluring. Many people are inspired to recreate vintage signs.
Today, it is difficult to find a fabricator who uses the original hand stenciling technique used on vintage enamel signs. Ramsign specializes in the fabrication of hand-stenciled porcelain enamel signs for domestic and decorative purposes. Although we do not have any vintage signs for sale, we lovingly craft every sign by hand, using the same time-tested techniques. If you have an idea for an original custom porcelain enamel sign or retro sign reproduction, please contact us.