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Sign Care: How to Preserve Historic Signs

We have seen some interesting articles recently about historic signs and it motivated us to look further into this topic.

Historic signs allow us to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going. They can tell the story of a town or illuminate the history of a certain district or profession. Preserving historic signs is an important part of keeping our history alive.

The earliest signs in America were typically just symbols, since most people couldn’t read. The symbols represented whatever the business sold: a tankard of beer for a saloon, a sheep for a tailor, three gold circles for a pawn shop. In the 19th century many other sign types emerged including goldleaf, awnings, porcelain enamel and fascia signs. The 20th century brought the advent of neon and plastic signs, along with the popular Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne styles.

With hundreds of thousands of signs created every day, how do historians determine which signs have historical value and should be preserved? The U.S. Department of the Interior states that signs should be preserved in the following situations:

  • The sign is associated with historic figures, events or places
  • The sign is significant as evidence of the history of the product, business or service
  • The sign is characteristic of a specific historic period or historic district
  • The sign is a local landmark, recognized as a popular focal point in a community


The preservation of historical signs is both a science and an art. Trained professionals can restore porcelain enamel, goldleaf and neon signs to their original condition with a variety of repair methods. Porcelain enamel signs are made of glass bonded to metal. This material withstands the elements very well, but a direct blow to the sign can scratch the enamel and rust may occur. The rust should be carefully removed from the affected area and the spot restored with cold enamel or enamel paints. Goldleaf signs were very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Experts can restore these signs by determining the composition of the goldleaf (the number of karats and whether it is alloyed with copper or silver) and then reproducing that composition. The damaged part of the sign can then be re-gilded. Neon signs can be repaired by replacing broken tubes or transformers. An expert glass bender can recreate the tubes and a neon studio can provide the right gas mixture to match the original sign color.

Guidelines for historic sign preservation vary greatly by municipality, so it is important to research the rules in an area understand all the nuances of sign care before embarking on a preservation project. Check out our previous posts on sign protection and preservation more information on keeping signage looking new.

Do you have a favorite historic sign?

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