Street signs – advertising as art


Street signs, Beamish Open Air Museum, Stanley, County Durham

Before the flickering neon tube invaded our senses, before the massive billboards with their ephemeral, multi-sectioned, paper posters, there were metal street signs. A step up from the simple manufacturer’s notices and such, which were generally painted in one or two colours on the blank walls of industrial or commercial buildings, metal signs were screwed onto the walls, railings and fences of everything from railway stations to ‘corner shops’.

In their heyday, from the Victorian era through to the 1950s, images on street signs rose from the commonplace to the iconic. The children used in the advertisements for ‘Pear’s Soap’ were famous, and Nipper, the  terrier in the painting ‘His Master’s Voice’ (originally from The Gramophone Company, now HMV) is still with us in a modified form, to this day. Many signs were made from metal, for durability; either of rolled tin or mild steel. The images on the signs are usually screen-printed, although some were painted.

The steel signs rusted, of course, by a process called oxygen cell corrosion, usually at the point were the paint/dyestuff layers were incomplete or damaged, such as at the screw holes. Some signs received a layer of enamel on the steel so they would have a longer life, or were galvanised for the same reason, and also because this thin layer of zinc gave better paint adhesion. The tin signs were more fragile than those made from steel.

The images you can see here are in the foyer of the Beamish Open Air Museum, and represent a selection of manufacturers and products, from those with national reach to those with strictly local appeal. Some, like Oxo, Carter’s Seeds, and Rowntree’s Cocoa are still with us today; others such as ‘Milkmaid’s Milk’ have faded into obscurity. ‘Berina’ Malted Milk Food appears to be a Scottish equivalent of Ovaltine, and ‘Holdfast Boots’ have walked off into the distance. Sadly, ‘Swan’ Ink lost out to Stephen’s Blue-Black Ink, the brand leader into the 1960s. Minor brands included ‘Thorley’s Food’ for pigs, and ‘Burnard & Alger’s’ a local company in Plymouth, who produced ‘ well known special manures for all crops’. My favourite though, is ‘Cooper’s, Sheep Dipping Powder’, which uses the image of a King of Spades playing card, showing the king carrying a shepherd’s crook instead of a sceptre. The sheep dip claims to cure keds, lice and scab; keds are a particularly nasty blood-sucking, wingless fly (Melophagus ovinus) which looks like a tick and causes loss of weight, damage to the hide and (indirectly) damage to the fleece as the sheep rub against fence posts and the like, because of irritation.

Needless to say, there is a flourishing market for these original signs; so much so that there is also a considerable trade in reproduction signs, even commercial images which were never previously issued in this form! I happen to like these colourful images immensely; they are cheerful reminders of a byegone age, and are now, quite correctly, regarded as a true art form.

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One comment on “Street signs – advertising as art”

  1. PastTimeSigns.com specializes in manufacturing a variety of vintage reproduction heavy duty metal products such as clocks, signs, oil cans, and thermometers.
    Our primary goal is to produce custom products for customers to retail or use in promotions. We also produce a range of stock products and graphics for wholesale or retail.
    We design and make our signs in the United States using 24 gauge American steel and a process known as sublimation, where the image is baked into a powder coating for a durable and long lasting finish. We then perform a vintaging process by hand to give this sign an aged look and feel. The edges of this sign are rounded for extra rigidity and the corners are drilled and riveted for easy hanging.

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