The Disappearing Art of Porcelain Signs

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Originally published on Collectorsweekly.com. In this interview, Michael Bruner talks about collecting vintage 20th Century porcelain advertising signs.

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I liked to collect things even as a child. Things that didn’t cost anything, like different colors of stones. By the time I was 13, I had collected enough stamps and coins to say that I had a good collection for a kid that age. But at some point I lost interest in them, and wound up with an interest in insulators. I went to some of the insulator shows, and a fair amount of advertising material showed up, mostly from telegraph and telephone companies. That’s a sideline to insulator collectors, not mainstream, but it perked my interest.

There was something about the advertising that I liked, so in the mid-1970s, I started to pick up porcelain signs. I got heavier and heavier into that, and by the 1980s, I had a fairly substantial collection.

As a result of collecting telephone signs, I would run into other advertising specialists, and I started seeing the kind of stuff that other people were buying and looking for and I started diversifying.

I picked up country store signs and petrol-related signs. Eventually those just overpowered the telephone signs. Most telephone signs have limited color and graphics. I saw all the huge diversity that was available in the other type of advertising, and started to focus more on that.

By the mid-1980s, I pretty much converted over to country store and petrol porcelain signs. I sold most of my telephone signs in the late 1980s. I only kept about eight of my favorites, and I still have them.

I have a new book that was released a month ago by Schiffer called Signs of Our Past: Porcelain Enamel Advertising in America. It’s a hardbound edition with about 700 photographs, all different from any of my previous books. I also did a book on insulators called The Definitive Guide to Colorful Insulators.

Collectors Weekly: You’ve traveled around the country and visited with porcelain sign collectors. When did that start?

Bruner: Way back in the ‘70s. I’ve always liked to travel. I’ve been fortunate that I have been able to travel a lot in my life. It’s not all to do with signs. I also play in a band, so lot of the travel has to do with that. I’ve always traveled a lot. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was mostly by car. We didn’t have the Internet then, and I like to say we did it the old-fashioned way. We had to earn everything that was in our collection by burning miles in our car. I ran into a lot of people and got to see a lot of collections.

I networked myself fairly well back then and got to know people. I saw that there weren’t any books available, so that’s how I got interested in doing a book on petrol signs. I’d done a book on telephone and telegraph signs in the mid-1980s with another friend of mine. The next thing you know, I’m doing these porcelain sign books for Schiffer. I’ve written seven books with them, including my new release, and I did probably four or six books previous to that with private publishing. I’m going to be co-authoring the next book that I do for them, on lightning protection items: the ornaments, the balls, wind vanes, hardware, ephemera, that kind of stuff.

Collectors Weekly: Could you tell us a bit about the history of porcelain signs?

Bruner: Porcelain advertising is a relatively recent art. I don’t even think it goes back 200 years, probably the earliest would be around 1880. None of that was done in the United States; it was done in Germany and some places in Europe, possibly England too. In the U.S., tin-painted and sand-painted signs were popular. Sand painting is wood with a powder coat with a gritty material on it.

Porcelain didn’t come to the United States until the 1890s. The first manufacturer was Enameled Iron Company in Pennsylvania, and then a couple others started to branch off at the turn of the century. We had Ingram-Richardson, which was the huge one in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and we had Baltimore Enamel & Novelty, which was also a huge company. There were a lot of other companies, but none as large as Ingram-Richardson or Baltimore Enamel.

The United States had to actually import all these techniques from Europe, including some of the labor force. They would solicit people that were versed in this from England and elsewhere, and I have seen several examples of porcelain enamel advertising used to promote manufacturing porcelain enamel. I saw one from around 1890 at a World’s Fair exposition, and it was in German, from a German company trying to get business in United States.

Collectors Weekly: Tell us about the sign-making process itself.

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Bruner: In the early days, it started with what was called rolled iron. Not steel initially; but rolled iron. Porcelain enamel is nothing but powdered glass that gets fused onto the iron. To get different colors, they would fire a base coat of one color. The stenciling they then did would represent different colored areas, and they would just fire one on top of another until they’d pieced together the entire graphic.

You’d have several layers of firing to make several different colors. The bumpy feel that you would have from one color to another was called shelving, and the powder was called frit. It was like a spray-on glass, and it just got fused.

It really took off because it could be produced relatively cost-effectively if they made a huge quantity. Advertisers were interested in keeping the cost down. Most importantly, the stuff is almost eternal in its longevity if you don’t expose it to an atmosphere where it can develop what we call sickness – acid etching, those types of things. If you took a porcelain sign manufactured a hundred years ago and kept it inside where all the air wasn’t around it, that sign would look just like the day it came off the production line. The qualities of porcelain enamel are just unbelievable.

Ultimately however the cost killed porcelain sign making. It’s labor intensive compared to paint or silkscreen on thin metal. You can’t take a piece of chintzy metal and put porcelain enamel on it. You’ve got to have something substantial or it’ll just fall apart when it’s being fired.

There are still porcelain manufacturers in the United States, about a half dozen of them, but mostly they’re limited to mundane advertising. They do city signs, signs for farms or municipal things, maybe for the Park Service. Boring stuff. The regular advertising market is gone as far as porcelain goes. It’s history.

Collectors Weekly: How did porcelain signs change over the years?

Bruner: The biggest change in the manufacturing technique was changing over from stencils to silkscreens. That was a boom to the manufacturers, and gave them the ability to increase production and cut their costs. Silkscreens are a lot easier to manufacture than stencils as far as labor intensity.

Porcelain signs in this country, at least initially, were pretty boring, and then all of a sudden they started getting really graphic. In the 1890s, they were minimal as far as the coloring went, but right around 1900, they started to blossom into this colorful competition from one manufacturer to another.

Porcelain signs were only one segment of a huge advertising market. There were many other things being made to advertise, most of them paper or cardboard. All manufactured products came in packaging of some type that they would profusely illustrate with their company’s logo or some kind of graphic art. Porcelain signs were basically confined to the medium that had to be exposed to the elements. Whatever went outside wound up in porcelain.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most interesting signs from a collector standpoint?

Diecut Butter Krust Bread display sign c. 1925

Bruner: The list is endless. Every time I start to think I’ve seen it all, something else comes along. There’s no end to it.  The hobby of porcelain enamel advertising collecting is pretty much divided into two categories as far as interest goes: the automobile (which includes the petrol collectors and all that) and the country store collectors. My favorite is the country store stuff. Your telephone sign is a country store sign, and things that had to do with tobacco, which was hugely popular. Paints and varnishes, anything to do with the food industry, those all go under the country store category.

The other one is the petrol, which has to do with automobiles, gasoline and oil. That is a huge part of today’s marketplace. I would guess that the petrol sign collectors outnumber country store collectors two to one. If I had to do this all over again, I might even just collect petrol stuff as far as investment value goes, because those guys are big spenders. As opposed to the country store collectors, who are not quite as competitive.

The stove companies were huge users of porcelain enamel advertising. That was a big part of the American advertising scene. Peninsular was a big one. There’s National with the big stove. We have one right here in Michigan called Round Oak, which used an imaginary Indian chief named Doe-Wah-Jack, and that was a huge business. They did a gigantic amount of advertising and their stuff is just super collectible today because of that Indian chief. His picture is on everything.

Tennessee Enamel in Nashville made a lot of porcelain signs, but their biggest account holder was Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola was probably the most prolific producer of country store advertising. We’re still finding stuff that’s been tucked away in warehouses and is coming out of the woodwork today. Every now and then something fresh will come out that’s literally new old stock. That’s how much stuff they made. But it’s not like the old days. Back in the 1980s, I’d hear stories about somebody who got into a building and dug out 12 new old stock signs. Those kinds of stories are getting real few and far between today.

Collectors Weekly: How many porcelain signs were made between 1900 and World War II?

Bruner: Thousands. But you also have to ask how many copies of a particular sign were made. I’ve got a little bit of a feel for scarcity and rarity. The Internet has given people a more realistic way of judging the scarcity of items. Years ago, before we had eBay, the only way you’d know something was common or not is if you saw another one in person or heard about it. You can just go on the Internet now, and over a period of months, you’ll know if it’s rare or not.

Because of the huge scrap drives, especially World War II scrap drives, most of the signs that were lying around were destroyed. World War I didn’t take as big of a toll on porcelain enamel advertising for two reasons: there was not as much of it up because our country was not growing as much in those days, and most of the products that were advertised on the porcelain signs were still being sold. There weren’t that many porcelain signs that were obsolete. By World War II, a lot of those products had become obsolete. The signs came down, and they would just sit in places. The scrap drive of World War II really took a lot of our heritage away. But, hey, what are you going to do? We won the war.

Collectors Weekly: Do you still see some porcelain signs up on buildings?

Bruner: Once in a while, yes. In my book that just came out, I took a picture of an old Pontiac sign and an old Buick sign at a dealership. The caption goes like this: “California Highway 16 is the main street in Woodland, California. Much to my surprise, these two porcelain neon advertisements were still giving service on a dealership downtown. We had all better enjoy these few remaining artifacts while we can, as this type of thing is almost extinct.” Well, guess what? I went through Woodland, California four days ago and the signs were gone. There’s stuff that’s still up, but it’s disappearing fast.

Collectors Weekly: You have a personal collection of signs, right?

Bruner: I do, probably about 150 porcelain signs. It’s mostly country store because that’s where the thrust of my interest has been over the years, but there is petrol in there, too. I have pretty much always favored graphics. You can have three or four colors on a sign, but if you don’t have a picture or some kind of graphic, it still might not interest me that much.

Harris Oils flanged sign from 1920s

I’m more interested in seeing spectacular graphics than spectacular colors. For example, I have what’s called a Brennig’s paint sign, and it’s only two colors: blue and white. After all the years I collected telephone signs, I know what blue and white’s all about – that’s all you see – but this sign has got a graphic of a guy painting the steeple. He’s hanging in the top of the city steeple, upside down from the top of the steeple, because their slogan was on the top.

That sign to me is just killer because of the graphics. Graphics are paramount to me, which is why I got out of the telephone signs. They started to all look the same: same message, same color, same bell. But collecting those telephone signs all those years gave me the tools that I needed to collect the stuff, and they sparked my interest enough to keep going.

Porcelain railroad signs are not easy to come by. I have a couple. There’s a couple out there I sure would like to own, but they’re so doggone expensive and rare that it’s hard to get my hands on them. I have a Union Pacific Railroad shield. It’s about 11 inches tall and it’s made for their trucks. I have a Western Pacific Railroad sign, which is a black and gray and with a big red feather, with Feather River Route on it. Railroads, for some reason or another, were not prolific users of porcelain advertising. There are some, but it’s not like some of these paint companies and stove manufacturers and food companies. Those guys just went on and on.

I have very few highway signs because the only ones I would want are fairly graphic. But highway signs have become very popular. In the 1920s, the California Auto Club made directional signs that were diamond shaped, and those things are going insane right now. If you have one of those and it’s in mint condition, you’re going to look in excess of $2,000 for that sign. It’s nothing but a name of a town with a mile and an arrow, but collectors are going crazy on those. One sign I have is a Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway sign, which is real nice. It has a mountain scene on it. It’s only two colors, but again, it’s the graphics that make it attractive.

Farm signs are mostly feeds and that kind of stuff. I have a couple of those. Normally, when you see that Red Steer brand, it’s a feed sign that’s diecut with a bag on it and a picture of a steer. I have one that I hadn’t ever seen before that’s manufactured by the same company as the Red Steer sign. It’s the same shape with the bag, but instead of the steer on the bag, they’re selling Swift’s meat scraps, so one side’s got a hog on it and the other side’s got a chicken. It’s just amazing.

I have a few door pushes and pulls. I never made it a specialty of mine, but I know some guys that do have them as specialties. They’re pricey, because they’re rare and they’re cute.

I own one or two newspaper signs, including one from the Detroit Free Press. There aren’t a lot of newspaper signs. The Toronto Star had a lot of signs made for them. In our area here, we have the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, and they both made porcelain signs. It would say something to the effect of “for sale here” or something like that.

Southern Bell brand diecut sign c. 1950s

What’s really caught on is stuff from out West. That’s just huge. If you’ve got something from California, you’ve got gold. There are a bunch of companies that specialized in the West. One of the signs that I’ve gotten recently is called Red Rooster Produce, from a company located in Sacramento. Those guys out West just love that stuff. I feel like I’m stealing it from the West because I’m out here in Michigan, and that sign’s heritage is really from out West. That’s where all its history came from.

I was in an antiquing area called Snohomish, Washington about a month ago, and I got a little flanged porcelain sign. It only has two colors and it says, “Approved and protected by Apartment, Hotel, and Motel Association of California.” As soon as I saw “of California,” I bought it, because those guys just love California stuff and this thing is about mint condition.

Insurance company signs are another area. The most desirable insurance company sign I’m aware of is the one that has the minuteman on it, by Continental Insurance. That was done with a decal process that was fired on, and those kind of images are very desirable. There’s a petrol sign by a company called Conoco that used a fired-on minuteman decal, too. Anytime you have that sign, you have a string of collectors who want it and a lot of dollars that are waiting to buy it. The graphics that are done with the decal process are the most sought-after.

Tobacco and cigar signs are very popular too.  One of the nicest ones that I’ve got is a cute little sign I bought three years ago. I just had to have it, so I traded mine. Anyway, it’s for Professor Morse’s 10-cent cigar. Ten cents doesn’t sound like a big deal, but back in the late ‘10s and 1920s, the going rate for cigars was 5 cents, so if you had a cigar that was 10 cents, you were out of the league. You better have a really good product in order to sell it for a dime. Professor Morse was a company back in the late ‘10s out of Troy, New York. The sign says, “10 cents. The best at any price.” I also have a curved tobacco sign, “Eight Brothers Long-Cut Tobacco, 5 cents.” This is another example of an early, rare sign.

Collectors Weekly: What do collectors look for in a porcelain sign, aside from graphics and the brand?

RCA Corporation sign manufactured c. 1930

Bruner: There are two-sided flat, one-sided flat, and flanged signs. Then you’ve got round signs or ones that are curved, that kind of stuff. Condition is always nice. The hobby has evolved over a period of years. I’ve always believed in the necessity to preserve these historical artifacts for future generations, so I believe in restoration. I think we owe it to future generations to do that. So I’m looking for the graphics on a sign, number one. If the condition’s there, that’s great. If the condition isn’t there, I’ll have it restored. I’ve got quite a few restored signs in my collection.

If it’s small damage, I probably wouldn’t restore it, but if you have three or four silver-dollar-sized chips out of the sign, especially if it’s into the image area where the main graphics are, that’s when you start saying, “This thing would look a lot better on my wall if it didn’t have that problem.”

I use a grading system from one to 10, and I have my own idea of what number I would give a sign, but everybody’s different on how they interpret things. It’s better to caution on the side of being generous. You always get this paradox between buyers and sellers, too. The seller wants to think it’s great, and the buyer wants to think it’s bad. That’s how the world works, not just in porcelain signs. Make sure you see what you’re buying instead of being blind-sided.

In addition to bullet holes, crazing is a problem with signs, as it is in a lot of hobbies, not just porcelain enamel. It’s common with glass, and porcelain is basically glass. “Crazing” probably isn’t as good of a word as “acid etching,” and that can happen in areas that have bad environments. It can happen from a sign that gets stored somewhere poorly or is dug from a dump. Or from something as simple as grounding. With signs up on steel poles coming out of the ground, because the sign was on the steel pole, it interacted with an electrolysis type of action, where the atmosphere would create acid etching because it was grounded.

It doesn’t get cracks in the porcelain, but it loses its gloss. You get these little specks that happen all over it, thousands of them. You can bring the gloss back if you’re willing to restore it. Just putting a clear coat on the sign a lot of times is all it takes.

Collectors Weekly: Do you collect any porcelain signs with neon?

Bruner: I have one: the United Motors oval sign with neon on it. They’re beautiful but you’ve got to be careful because you can bust the neon. It’s tough to ship, and it’s tough to handle. They’re not cheap. It’s really hard to be handling neon a lot, so I’ve shied away from those signs. Neon goes back to the 1920s. It came into vogue real fast and was hugely popular in the 1930s. It was expensive to make because you’ve got the expense of the porcelain and the neon too. But, boy, did they look great.

Collectors Weekly: Do collectors tend to focus specifically on porcelain signs or do they collect as an adjunct, to go with their other collections?

Diecut Coca-Cola Fountain Service sign manufactured in 1934

Bruner: The specialists in porcelain enamel advertising are the ones that got most of the stuff. I know a bunch of collectors at this point in my life, and some of these guys have hundreds of signs. It’s just amazing. All this is relative to money, unfortunately. It’s not just the want factor. You’ve got to want it, but then can you afford it? Some of these guys I know have bottomless checkbooks. I know one collector in Southern California who’s been doing this for less than 10 years, and he has an immense collection because he’s just had an immense amount of money to spend on this stuff.

I wish I could tell you it was younger people collecting signs, but the sad thing is, a lot of the hobbies that I’ve seen are having a hard time attracting younger people. And I’m involved with quite a few hobbies. Like the insulators. It’s not like the old days where you’d have a slew of teenagers coming in the door at a show. Things are getting pricey. Where’s a beginner going to start? It’s tough.

Some of the bigger porcelain signs can actually be cheaper than the smaller signs, because they’re harder to display. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Most people want the smaller things. The larger the sign gets, the less people are going to be interested in it. But some things aren’t made in a smaller size, so you’ve got to take what you can get. That’s why door pushes are so popular; you can put them right in the palm of your hand.

Collectors Weekly: What shows and other resources would you recommend for people interested in porcelain advertising signs?

Bruner: There are several really good shows on a regular basis every year. One is the annual Indianapolis Advertising Show, which is probably the oldest advertising show on the planet. A show that I used to go to regularly is the Iowa Gas Show. That’s been going on since the mid-1980s. It’s a wonderful show to pick up petrol advertisements and country store stuff. There are other big shows out West.

In terms of other resources, there’s the American Antique Advertising Association, but keep in mind they cover all facets of advertising. There is no organization that I am aware of that specializes in porcelain enamel advertising in the United States. In England, Christopher Baglee and Andrew Morley started an official club called the Street Jewelry Society, but we don’t have a club in the United States.

Collectors Weekly: Any other advice for new porcelain sign collectors?

Shell Petroleum Co. sign by Tennesee Enamel Manufacturing Co. Nashville, 1931

Bruner: It’s such a complex formula. People have to figure out what it is that they want – like petrol or country store. I don’t know what it is that makes certain collectors go certain ways. This country is infatuated with the automobile, and I think that’s what’s accounted for such a big yearning for petrol signs. If you go to Europe, that’s a whole different story. They don’t have the amount of petrol signs over there that we do. Everything is country store, selling soap, tobacco products, coffee, food products, etc.

Petrol is the largest division of signs, the most prolific in the United States. Maybe somebody would want to start collecting pump plates. In every gasoline pump, there’d usually be a little porcelain sign that would have the brand and the octane rating, and that’s a collectible upon itself. A lot of people collect just pump plates, and they cost a little bit less than some of the other signs in general. There are exceptions to that, but in general they can be bought a little bit less.

(All images courtesy Mike Bruner)

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