Before enamel signs arrived in the US, signs were made of the same material as canned food: tin. Tin replaced paper posters as the ideal sign material. Gas companies would then imprint their brands, logos, and slogans onto Tin plates via a process called lithography, despite the high cost of producing tin signs. Tin signs in mint condition are typically harder to find as the material is prone to rust.
Tin signs are beautiful, distinctive, and colorful. They have some of the best lithographies in the vintage signage market. Many of them are well-preserved, which is why they’re so popular with collectors. Tin was a very popular material and used in a wide range of products. Consumers of that time expected items to be packed in a tin and didn't trust the quality of items packaged in board or paper.
History of Tin Signs
Tin signs have been around since the early 19th century. They were quite expensive at the outset, because they were hand painted and difficult to manufacture. Only the biggest and most successful businesses could afford them. However, industrialization made the process much quicker and easier.
Manufacturers were able to use lithographs to create intricate tin signs. These become so popular and readily available that they competed with paper posters as advertising mediums. Between 1875 and 1895, manufacturers were able to develop machines to handle the entire process. Presses stamped and cut tin sheets into the desired shape and machines transferred images directly onto the tin surface.
Tin is a resilient metal and is fairly weather-resistant compared to paper or board. That’s why it was used to create attractive signs for all kinds of businesses. These signs were still a little expensive to make but businesses of that time considered it a worthwhile investment.
Lithography technology gave manufacturers the flexibility to take their work to the next level. They pushed the boundaries of American typography and created many iconic images. The competition was intense and every manufacturer was trying to outdo the other. That’s one of the reasons why you can find some intricate and sophisticated tin signs today.
The most beautiful signs were displayed in prominent locations and brought publicity to the manufacturer. As tin signs were expensive, most brands would lend them to businesses instead of just handing them over free of cost. This was considered a status symbol and the self-documented signs become coveted over time.
Tin signs continued to remain popular until 1920, after which porcelain signs started to garner attention, along with neon signs afterwards. By this time, tin signs were cheaper to produce and didn’t carry the same value as they did in the past.
Types of Tin Signs for Sale
Hand-painted signs are considered some of the most valuable in this category. Unfortunately, most hand-painted tin signs are damaged and very few are in pristine condition.
Some of the most common tin signs available today are the rooms-to-let signs. They were placed outside hotels, motels, and rental properties. Self-frame tin signs are also quite popular. They have a frame-like design that makes them look more sophisticated and presentable.
How to Buy a Tin Sign
Tin signs are vulnerable to wear and careless handling. They develop rust easily, which can compromise their value. Always look for signs that have little to no rust, but also keep an eye out for items that look too pristine. Also keep in mind - It is easy to create fake vintage tin signs, so educate yourself. You might end up spending more than you should. Check the condition of the sign carefully before making the purchase.