Before giant hoardings and huge printed posters, roadside advertising was much more restrained. The enamel sign was developed in the mid-Victorian period and the world's first purpose-built factory was established by the Patent Enamel Co Ltd at Selly Oak, Birmingham, UK in 1889. Several other major firms were established in the following 10 years and the signs proliferated. They were used to advertise goods and services of every description right through until around the 1960's, when posters and television advertising sounded their death knell.
The normal sites for signs were shops and similar retail or service premises such as garages. The proprietors would be paid a small fee to display and maintain them. They were often designed for specific places, such as beneath shop windows (long and thin) or at the sides of doorways (tall and narrow). Side walls and end gables were also popular Some shops were natural sites for appropriate signs, particularly newsagents, grocery stores, confectionery shops and tobacconists. Another common site was the railway station, and in the early years of the 1900's, some market research techniques were used to identify the ideal positions for maximum impact. Indeed the signs used for and by the railways showing station names, way to the trains, ticket office and other railway advertising were also enamel signs.
Some of the earlier signs were for Sunlight soap and Cadbury's cocoa or chocolate, but other manufacturers soon joined in and the product range grew rapidly. Virtually anything that could be bought at a shop was suitable for enamel sign advertising – groceries of every description, sweets, household cleaners, drinks and tobacco, shoes, furniture, medicines, pet food, in fact the list was seemingly endless. Other products included sewing machines, prams, agricultural products, paints, fountain pens and inks, radios and gramophones, even tennis racquets. Services included car servicing and related fuel, oil and tyres, opticians, insurance, house removals, railways and shipping, travel and tourism.
The majority of these signs were rectangular in shape although sizes vary enormously. The wording is often quite short and simple, with bright colours used to attract attention. Longer texts are not uncommon but some of the most striking signs incorporate pictorial images and these are particularly desirable. Non rectangular signs are less common, although some firms used circular or diamond shaped signs and a few were cut out to special shapes, good examples including a man riding a Raleigh bicycle, a jar of Bovril and a tea leaf advertising Mazawattee Tea.
Double-sided signs were also used which would hang outside appropriate premises. Some signs would have a specially designed bracket, sometimes made from wrought iron, whereas others would simply have one edge of the surface bent back to form a flange which could be screwed directly to a wall. Double-sided signs were also quite commonly used for hotels, inns or public houses.
There are also a range of novelty signs, several of which incorporate thermometers. Other thermometer signs were issued for Nut Brown Tobacco, Stephens Inks, Izal disinfectant, and even Brooklax (a chocolate laxative). An excellent variant was issued by Gillette razor blades with the addition of a small barometer. Hudson's Soap was advertised on quite a range of signs, amongst which are some fitted with a clock face and moveable hands. These could be set to show times such as when the bakery came in, when cyclists should light up in the evening, or when the shop was due to open or close, none of which have much to do with the soap.
Hudson's Soap also used a novel ploy to attract attention, with coded letters incorporated within their signs. They issued a small cardboard guide titled 'A Railway Puzzle Explained' which listed the codes, all of which were slogans such as 'Make Washing Easy' or 'Improves Public Health'. The idea was clearly an early version of I-Spy designed to help while away long train journeys and subliminally advertise the soap at the same time.
One other interesting point to note is that a number of signs bear the maker's name , usually in small lettering in a bottom corner. Typical examples include Wyman & Sons of London, Chromo of Wolverhampton, Hancor Signs of Mitcham, and the Patent Enamel Co. Ltd. Mentioned in the introduction above. There are many others and this could prove a fruitful field of study for the more academically-minded collector.
Today such signs are very collectable. Although not plentiful they regularly turn up in auction sales, particularly with collectors' items. There are collectors of signs themselves but there is also a good market for the specialist – a biscuit tin collector, for example, might like a Huntley & Palmers 'John Ginger' sign as a centrepiece for the collection; a collector of fountain pens would be attracted to a Waverley or Swan pens sign; any real ale enthusiast would be spoiled for choice!
As with all advertising, the advertising message changes over time, so the signs for the same product or manufacturer varies, thus making this a specialist collectable area.
Some signs have become particularly famous including the Fry's Chocolate sign depicting five boys in various stages of anticipation for their reward. Fry's also issued a range of comic advertising postcards by Tom Browne and two of these were also issued as enamel signs.
As with all other collectables, condition is paramount. Being metal, signs are inevitably liable to rust, although the enamel surfaces are surprisingly robust and signs have been dug up from gardens or old tips in remarkably good condition. Some rusting around the edges or mounting holes is quite acceptable, but when areas of rust impinge on significant parts of the design, value is adversely affected. As with all collectables, look for items that you like and are the best that you can afford. Then you will get years of happy ownership.
Sadly, relatively few signs remain in situ, although the odd survivor can sometimes still be found, hopefully to remain for posterity. Examples are often on display in museums but there is no doubt that they are best seen in original surroundings. Stations on preserved railway lines try to recreate the nostalgia of a bye gone era and often display enamel advertising signs.