Enamel signs (or Street Jewellery) have their origins in the mid 1800’s and were the usual means of advertising food, petrol and services on the side of buildings, trams, on railway station platforms and fences, out the front of shops, on the sides of horse carriages and used for other signage e.g. street signs until the 1950’s and 60’s.
The actual process of fusing coloured glass to iron plates was actually patented much earlier in 1859. This process was named vitreous enamelling and was developed by Benjamin Baugh in Birmingham UK. He ran the Salts Patent Enamel works in Bradford Street in Birmingham, the company displaying several of their signs in the Trade Exhibition in London in 1860.
In Australia, the first original enamel signs were made in Adelaide (Simpson & Sons and A. Simpson & Son Ltd from the mid 1890’s).Some fine examples and a collectors dream are the Hudsons Soap signs, Plume Motor Spirit, North British and Mercantile, New Zealand Insurance and Monkey Brand just to name a few. In the late 1800’s – early 1900’s in Sydney and Adelaide, Fred Metters started developing enamel signs e.g. Bushell’s Blue Label Tea, Texaco Motor Oil and some Shell signs too. By the 1960’s Victorian Enamel Works in Geelong, made some of the now highly petrol sought after signs e.g. Plume Vacuum Oil Co Pty Ltd, Golden Fleece Motor Spirit, Shell Imperial Spirit as examples.
The Benefits of Enamel Signs
Vitreous Enamel is waterproof, strong and lasts and retains the bright colours much longer than can be achieved through other mediums such as paint or print. Soon the process was used to inform the public in brilliant colours of all that was available in Victorian England and indeed the World.
Some had catchy sayings e.g. “Bushell’s – The Tea of Flavour”. Others were more innovative and some were incredibly intricate, displaying pictures of the product itself, how the product was used and in the case of medicines, and even false teeth telling you what a difference this product will make to your lives!
The first purpose built factory was in Selly Oak, Birmingham in 1889 named the “Patent Enamel Company”. However, this has been disputed as in Wolverhampton the Chromographic Enamel Company Ltd was formed in 1886 and believed to have been producing signs from this date 3 years earlier than at Selly Oak.
The History of Enamel Signs
With the onset WWII, a shortage of steel occurred so “anything” salvageable which could be melted down into ammunition was sourced. E.g. pots, pans, railings, enamel signs, basically anything steel and aluminium. After WWII the nature of advertising began to change and posters and prints became popular as the main advertising medium. This was due as they were cheap, easy and quick to produce and the message or picture could be rapidly changed.
Rare Enamel Signs
Due to the fact that some enamel signs are quite rare now, for the serious collector “finding that sign that they are after to add to their collection” can become challenging and indeed time consuming.
One reason, is due to the fact that some collectors just keep hold of their signs and not many of great patina and design come up for sale.Or, sadly, many were destroyed and there are only a limited quantity left.When some of the “rarer” signs come up for sale, the price tag represents their originality, quality and scarcity. Pictorial enamel signs generally with bold colour, limited rust or dents and in mint or very good condition can be sold for thousands and thousands of dollars.
Hence a market has sprung up to try to “replicate” original enamel signs. Here at Bowerbird Pickers, we only source our signs from our network of reputable people who have been in the enamel sign industry for decades.Our motto is to only stock enamel signs which are original as this is what we collect ourselves and it is always nice to have the “real deal” displayed on your walls. Not only are they great to look at, but they have over the years held their value and can become “quite a little nest egg” for the future.
Enamel Signs are categorised depending upon the topic e.g. Grocery, Tobacco or Petrol signs.Some topics are more popular than others – Petrol Enamel Signs are always popular for man caves. A resurgence in Tea/Coffee signs has occurred and an old sign in a modern kitchen has become a focal talking point for any retro or modern contemporary home.