Seeing Signs

By Karen Parr-Moody
The use of offset lithography to print on metal became widespread by the late 1800s. This technology of the day met the Industrial Revolution, with all of its wares worth hawking, and the modern-day sign was born.
Signs were used for everything – including luncheon traditions that became popular in the Deep South called the “meat and three” or “blue plate special.” The “meat and three,” as any good Southerner knows, is a meat with three vegetables for a set price, often served with cornbread. The “blue plate special” features anything one the dining establishment’s menu, but the fundamental concept is similar. The sign here advertises a “Lunch Special’ for 90 cents (photo, right; $39; Booth B-114). Based on that price, and adjusting for today’s inflation, this sign is probably from the 1930s or 1940s. Hungry yet?
Other signs that popped into the landscape during the last century included those for a popular highway, Route 66, established in 1926. When it comes to symbols of wayfaring, the black-and-white shield sign for Route 66 pops immediately to mind (photo, left; $10, B-2023). The road was once littered with such signs, including the first ones put up in 1927. These signs were made of wood and are extremely rare today. Porcelain signs replaced the wooden ones and are the ones most associated with Route 66.
Indeed, the porcelain sign was used in all manner of outdoor advertising from the 1880s to the 1950s. They were also known as enamel signs or porcelain enamel signs and were made by fusing layers of powdered glass in a variety of colors onto a base of iron.
This two-sided “Drink Coca-Cola” sign is from the golden age of porcelain signs, dating to the 1930s (photo, right; $850; Booth B-113). America’s favorite carbonated beverage was invented in 1886 and has since brought bubbles, and advertising galore, to the world.
This sign in this photo would have been used in a blade sign set up outside of a soda fountain, which were hugely popular in the 1930s; that is why it is double sided. The words "fountain service" would have been included on a plate above it; that is why the sign has grommet holes at the top, where that other piece of the sign would have been mounted.
This sign, with its Art Deco style letters in the word “Drink” was seen in ads of the time and included the following copy: "It's a lucky thirst that meets an ice-cold Coca-Cola at America's favorite meeting place, the soda fountain." What a charming find for any lover of Americana!
Another blade sign is seen here advertising “Smoke Piedmont … the cigarette of quality" (photo, left; W-215). The Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company made the now defunct Piedmont cigarettes during the early 20th century. In fact, it was the leading brand in the Southeast according to a 1911 business journal. Piedmont cigarettes are now most known among collectors for the period of time, up to 1914, when it included baseball cards in packs of cigarettes.

Regatta Yacht Paints has a long and storied history, which is not evident from this sign but would be known among naval history buffs (photo, right; $145; W-215). This is yet another blade sign, a category long popular among mom-and-pop shops. Regatta Yacht Paints was manufactured for decades by the Baltimore Copper Paint Company, which was founded in 1870. During World War II, the company manufactured vessel coatings for the U.S. Maritime Commission, the U.S. Navy, the British Admiralty and Russian torpedo boats. Ahoy!
Collectors today love old themed signs from all over, including those made for gas stations, soft drinks and automobiles. The more masculine ones can add charm to a man cave. Others – such as those advertising soft drinks or snack foods – are simply made for the kitchen. Whichever sign one chooses for one’s décor, a bit of the past will mingle happily with the present.


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