Figural Trade SignsBy Mark Chervenka
Figural Trade Signs
Authentic figural trade signs are recognized and prized as American folk art. They have been collected, admired and displayed in museums since the 1930s. Because of their popularity among collectors and use in interior design, original trade signs command high prices. Low wage workshops in Indonesia, the Philippines and other Asian countries have reproduced some of the most desirable figural designs for the decorating and gift trade. Over the years many of these new pieces have been filtering into the antiques market.
Cigar store Indians and other trade figures carved in wood have been reproduced since the mid-20th century and have been covered elsewhere. This article will focus on the metal figural signs first appearing in the mid 1990s.
America's figural trade signs descended from the tradition of English inn signs. Throughout Britain, colorfully painted figures and symbols, helped the mostly illiterate customers connect a particular inn with a name like Red Lion, Blue Boar or King's Crown. This custom was carried to the American colonies where it was continued and expanded to many other business activities by necessity.
Colonial merchants, for example, could not afford the large sheets of glass for large store windows to display their merchandise. Customers could not see much through the many small panes of glass in most store fronts. Lettered signs were of little value due to the low literacy rate and the constant flood of immigrants who spoke many different languages. Early streets had names but not necessarily street numbers making a business hard to find by address alone. That's why American merchants--like British inn owners-- turned to symbols to tell shoppers what goods or service they offered for sale.
Figural trade signs were common sights in large cities from late 18th century through the first quarter of the 20th century. As literacy improved and immigration slowed, lettered signs became more practical. Electricity allowed shopping after dark and figural trade signs, no matter how brightly painted or detailed, were invisible at night. Incandescent lights and then fancifully shaped neon made brilliant displays 24 hours a day and quickened the end of the simpler signs. Figural trade signs in use today are generally more noticeable as a curiosity than as a practical way to promote business.
Sources of Originals
There were two basic types of trade signs: those made at home and those made by a sign company. Home made signs were generally found in small towns where the owner or local "artist" made a one-of-kind piece. Home made signs were usually made of wood which could be worked with everyday household tools such as saw, hammer and chisel. These signs are more in the category of folk art and will not be covered in this article.
Factory made trade signs tended to be in larger cities where local ordinances, as a matter of public safety, governed the types of signs allowed and their installation. Factory made figural signs were usually some type of metal such as tin, sheet steel, zinc and copper. These commercially made signs were fairly complicated involving dies, molds, castings etc. Many commercially made figures were also offered as trade sign weathervanes as well as hanging signs. Some signs, like those of copper, were either gilded or finished in a natural patina, but most were either painted originally or painted at some time over the years.
Natural and Artificial Aging of Paint
Many suspect signs can be identified by inspecting their paint. Virtually all old painted figural trade signs were done with oil based paint for resistance to the weather. One of the ways oil base paints show their age is by alligatoring-- which is the development of fine cracks across the paint's surface. This condition is speeded up by a number of factors, the most important being age, paint thickness and exposure to sunlight (ultraviolet radiation). Another sign of genuine normal wear in oil based paint is the presence of ragged edged chips (Figs. 8-9 above). Lead paint is hard and when it chips it fractures causing sharp pointed chips. These types of chips are easy to see with the unaided eye. You probably have some examples to study on your genuine painted cast iron pieces such as toys or doorstops, etc.
When old lead paint chips it exposes the object beneath the paint which usually turns dark over time. Cracks caused by alligatoring generally fill in with dirt and appear as dark lines. These types of genuine wear can be simulated by "antiquing" a newly painted surface. In this process, a dark layer of paint is applied as the first coat then overlaid with top coat of colored paint. While the colored top coat is not quite dry, it is scratched and gouged. Through these scratches and gouges can now be seen the dark base coat below.(Figs. 6-7 above) This process duplicates the pattern of dark spots and cracks seen in a genuinely old painted surface that shows wear and aging.
The top layer of virtually all "antiqued" trade signs is acrylic paint (water soluble); almost all old signs were in oil paint (soluble in mineral spirits). Acrylics weren't discovered until the 1940s and were not available for widespread use until the late 1950s-early 1960s.
Another late 20th century material found in the reproduction metal trade signs is a poly resin filler similar to that used in auto body repair. It is used to smooth over shoddy joints, even rough surfaces and hide poorly joined seams (Fig. 10). You can locate this material by gently tapping the surface with your knuckle. There is a distinct change in sound between the thin sheet metal of the sign and the resin filled areas.
Hardware & Brackets
Another quick way to eliminate questionable signs is to examine how they were supposedly mounted. Authentic signs were built to withstand the weather for years and their construction and hardware should logically be consistent with this purpose. You should ask yourself "Would this bracket or hanging loop support this sign in a 40 m.p.h. wind well enough to survive to the end of the 20th century?" Hanging loops or other hardware should be attached to the strongest point of the sign; most old signs are typically reinforced in the areas around the hanging loops or other hardware.
The hanging loops on the new fish signs are typical of the new trade signs in general. To mistake these pieces for old you would have to believe they survived 80-125+ years of wind and weather suspended from two tiny holes not much bigger than pin heads. Further, the holes are in one of the weakest positions on the figures, the top edge of the top fin. This would mean the entire figure would be at the mercy of the six inch joint where the fin meets the top of the body. But that is the main difference between the new and old signs and many other reproductions. Reproductions are made to look nice; originals were made for a specific task and practical purpose.
You should also check to see what the hardware is made of. The majority of original brackets, loops and hardware are made of wrought iron. True antique wrought iron was rarely originally painted because it developed its own protective surface. Antique wrought iron has only three to four per cent carbon. When exposed to the elements, it produces a black rust (Fe302) which does not flake off and actually seals the surface from further corrosion. Original wrought iron is further protected by firescale which forms during heating and reheating while being hand worked.
New iron and steel, like that used in the reproduction sign brackets, have a much higher carbon content and are attacked by red/brown rust (Fe203). To prevent the rusting, therefore, the new brackets must be painted. Most of the new brackets are simply stock shapes which have been beaten with hammers or touched with rotary grinders to give a hand forged look. As a rule of thumb, be suspicious of sign brackets and hardware that have been painted and show obvious tool marks. Red or brown rust around any mounting hardware is also a warning sign.
Original trade signs are generally large enough to be plainly seen at a distance; that was their purpose. Approach the question of size by asking, again, "Is it logical?" Could this be seen by passersby at a reasonable distance? The new hat in Fig. 11, for example, is only about the size of an actual top hat, just 9″ high. Is it logical a sign that small would draw attention to itself? Authentic figural trade signs vary widely in size, most were generally at least 24″-36″ and larger. Although some of the new signs are the appropriate size, others, like the hat, are noticeably too small.
When assessing size, also consider the proportion between sign and mounting hardware. Most new signs have a one-size-fits-all bracket like the one shown with the new hat. Several sizes of new signs fit this bracket. If the sign seems too large or too small for its mounting hardware, be suspicious. Also be wary if two of more signs offered by the same seller have the same exact hardware.
The new signs shown in this article are only a few of the many reproductions available. In addition to figural trade signs, there are also a large number of flat sheet-style trade signs being reproduced. Most of the new flat trade signs are in the form of weathervanes like Fig. 1. The new flat signs can be detected using the same clues in paint and mounting hardware discussed for the figural signs in this article.
For further reading (OP=out of print):
Christensen, E. Early American Wood Carving, World Books, © 1952 OP
Coffin, M. American Country Tinware 1700-1900, Gallahad Books © 1968 OP
Fiske, J.W. 1893 catalog, Wallace Homestead reprint, OP
Fiske, JW 1875 catalog, as above
Fried, F. Artists in Wood. Bramhall ©1970 OP
Hornung, C. Treasury of American Design (also known as Index of American Design) Abrams/National
Gallery of Art © 1976
Fitzgerald, K. Weathervanes and Whirligigs, Potter ©1967 OP
Klamkin, C. Weathervanes Hawthorn,©1973
Lipman, J. American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone. Pantheon © 1948 OP
Westervelt, AB. 1883 catalog; reprint, Dover © 1982