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Vintage metal signs

In the United States, the evolution of metal signage runs alongside the nation’s history.As TodSwormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum, said, "If you look at the history of signs in America, it's almost like a micro history of the U.S. at large."

This is particularly true in the areas of advertising and automobiles – which brought about the need for regulated traffic signs.

Around 1900, public literacy in the U.S. began to rise, and the use of tin signs to advertise products inside grocery stores and other shops became popular. Once the steel industry boomed, so did sheet metal signage, which was used to advertise everything from fertilizer and cigarettes to soft drinks and overalls. It also was the material of choice for the first stop sign in America - installed in Detroit, Mich., in 1915 and painted with black letters on a white background.

From about 1910 to 1930, traffic, parking and street signs featured messages that were carved or routed into the heavy, 12-gauge steel. But in the 1930s, many sign-makers transitioned to an embossing press, which could be used on 14-, 16- and 18-gauge metal and was not as labor-intensive as the carving process. This allowed for more applications, such as curving the metal to fit around a parking meter, as well as the ability to affordably produce large replica cartier quantities of signs – which were needed as more automobiles took to the roads.

The start of World War II, of course,brought the production of metal signs to a halt, as metal could only be used for war efforts.

Although advances in technology during the war introduced vinyl as a durable option for signage, metal remained a replica audemars piguet favorite for both advertising and traffic signs throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, and was in high demand, as highway systems were expanded and brought about more gas stations and diners along their routes – destinations that we now frequently associate with “retro” metal signage.

In many ways, this became a golden era for metal signs for advertising purposes. Brands like Coca-Cola embellished their signs with functioning thermometers. Beer brands incorporated clocks. And drugstores and ice cream parlors greeted customers with human-size metal mascots like ice cream cones and smiling Native Americans at the door.

This metal signage has proved so durable, in fact, that while many of the roads have been erased and many of the companies have closed, their signs remain, and have become valuable collection pieces. Just take a look on eBay, visit a local auction house or even tune in to a “pickers” reality show and you’re sure to catch a repliche panerai glimpse of the legacy of vintage metal signs and the high price they can command.

Old Stop Sign
Note the cat’s eyes on this 50-plus-year-old stop sign; they’re the precursors to the reflective film that covers contemporary signs.
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