Christmas always brings on a feeling of nostalgia for me. I think back to my childhood in Britain, growing up in the 1960s. In my memories, the world was a simpler place. Often, things were homemade, handmade, mended or reused. It is with this same nostalgia that I think back to tin and wood signs.
Like the evolution of Christmas, signs have changed over the centuries with a few important historical events that impacted signage history. For centuries signs were made from wood, some elaborately carved and painted.
An early stimulus to handmade wooden signs was a law passed in1389. *King Richard III of England decreed that “any establishment that sold ale must place a sign out in front of its building”. The law marked a significant uptake on artisan signmakers as local pub owners realised the intrinsic value of signage as a brand.
Fast forward: the 1700s.
Overhead signage was such a significant marketing tool that by the 1700s, it became a liability in overcrowded streets. Cities such as London and Paris declared them dangerous, and only signs laid flat against the wall were permitted.
The invention of gas and electrical power re-shaped modern signage with the industrial printing press. By the 1800s, businesses and artisans had realised that creativity played a role in attracting clients. With improved technology came even more options when creating signs. The steel industry was booming by 1890 and became the logical choice for mass signage. At that time, most outdoors signs in North America were constructed from a base of **heavy rolled iron, die-cut into the desired shape and then coated with layers of coloured powdered glass and fired in a kiln—creating porcelain enamel tin signs. A cheaper and less durable method was to paint tin signs with enamel paint.
I have a particular fondness for tin signs. They represent a time that has passed. The onset of WWII banned the production of metal or tin signs as the war effort needed every ounce to produce ammunition. The emphasis was on maintaining rather than replacing old signs. It is this value— maintenance vs replacement—that resonates with me. It is this simple approach to life that I remember when thinking back to Christmas past.
As is sadly true of all wars, WWII advanced new technologies, and by the 1950s, plastic and vinyl had replaced tins signs. Porcelain enamel signs had become too costly to make, which relegated them to memorabilia.
Old becomes new.
In the past few years, tin signs have made a comeback. Many microbreweries and other trendy retail outlets have adopted them as branding and design elements, mixing old world nostalgia with a clean, no-fuss industrial or modern look. As technology becomes more sophisticated, it offers hundreds of printable materials, complex colours and multiple sign-making options; however, since the 1300s, signage remains an important marketing and information tool.
Happy Holidays to All!
With Holiday Season upon us, I remind myself that December is a month of many secular celebrations from the Jewish Chanukah to the Winter Solstice, the Germanic Yule, and Christmas, the Christian birth of Jesus. This year will probably be a simpler Holiday Season for many of us as we stay close to home and enjoy small gatherings with our immediate circle of friends or family. May it be a safe, happy and healthy holiday season for all.
References and further reading on the history of signs:
*** The History of Signage by Nelson James, CEO of Signs.com
* History of Tin Signs as Advertising Signage by Planet Retro
** 60 Rare and Unusual Vintage Signs by Gerri Elder, a content producer and social media strategist