Look carefully at any real-photo postcard of Main Street in an American town of the early 20th century and chances are you will see a number of hand-painted signs. These signs were hand-lettered by sign painters, now a near-obsolete occupation in an age of computerized graphics.
Collectors are drawn to the folky look of signs made with brush and paint, which stand out amid modern cookie-cutter signage of today. There has been a renewed interest in recent years in the visually captivating craft of sign painting.
A high illiteracy rate was the main reason early trade signs were formed as figural representations of the product or service the vendor provided. A butcher might display the carved-wood head of a bull. A dentist would hang a larger-than-life molar, complete with roots. A giant pocket watch represented a jeweler or clockmaker. Of all the figural trade signs of the 19th century, the most valuable is the iconic cigar store Indian, which stood at the entrance to the town tobacconist’s establishment.
By the turn of the 20th century, most Americans could read, so accordingly, commercial signs incorporated text in eye-catching lettering. Sign painters were in high demand, whether to create a sign for display in a store window or a large advertisement to be painted, and viewed, high on the side of a building.
While the latter has often been covered up by development or faded into what some call a “ghost sign,” smaller hand-painted signs advertising goods and services do appear on the secondary market and are appreciated for their folk-art qualities.
The simplest are single boards, usually having an attached wooden frame, that have painted text on a contrasting background color. The expression “to hang out your shingle,” in the sense of starting your own business, may have originated with such a sign.
Signs to be placed out and over a store’s entrance or posted on a roadside were double-sided so they could be seen by passersby from two directions. It’s common to find that such signs are more weathered and faded on one side than the other, due to greater exposure to the sun and prevailing elements.
Signs posted in rural locales often have arrows directing motorists off the highway onto a side road to the desired location.
Figural signs did not disappear entirely as the literacy rate increased; instead, they transitioned to include hand-painted lettering. Like weather vanes of the late 1800s, many signs simply became flat rather than three dimensional.
For added visual appeal, many sign painters depicted the product being sold by the vendor, such as fruits and vegetables.
Reverse-painting on glass gave a sign a formal look and preserved the lettering from wear, since it was often protected by a frame.
Expect to find usual wear, weathering and fading on signs that were used outdoors. Avoid the temptation to repaint or even touch-up old paint. It is better to leave a vintage sign in “as found” condition, which speaks to its character.
For a fascinating look into the world of antique signs and advertising turn to the Picker’s Pocket Guide: Signs by Eric Bradley (2014: Krause Publications, 800-258-0929).
For more handcrafted antique signs, take a look at our weekly Americana and Folk Art auctions.
— Jasper52 (@ByJasper52) February 22, 2017