Signs of the Times

I love signs. They are at the same time historical and decorative. They are executed in a variety of media, in a dazzling range of styles, and for a diverse set of purposes. Let’s explore some of these.

Early signs were generally made of solid wood, and painted in a single colour on a contrasting background. A 24 x 20-inch church sign acquired in ‘cottage country’ in the Bruce Peninsula, evokes the days when everyone went to church on Sunday, whether or not they were on vacation. Sunday School was on Sunday morning, and the regular service was in the evening. Presumably this kept the mid-part of the day free for vacationers to enjoy the beach and the lake, and for farmers to look after their cattle or their crops.

The sign is painted on pine board, with a simple matching frame around it. Black on grey is not a vibrant combination – did this carry a hidden message about the quality of the sermons?

A 22 x 28-inch dairy sign, advertising “Jersey Old Tyme Ice Cream”) could have come from the side of an old-time horse-drawn milk delivery wagon if it hadn’t had the same design on both sides. This means that it would have been free-standing, probably outside a local dairy. With three different types of script, this would have been a more expensive one to produce than the church sign. It’s also painted on boards, with a simple frame.

Signs such as these can be fairly expensive, depending upon the dealer and the venue. The reality is that “They don’t make them any more” and they make wonderful décor items to create a relaxed, down-home feeling, in a casual den.

More specific and much larger is a Star Weekly sign . This can be readily identified with a product, and, based on the price, with a specific time period. At 36 x 41 inches, it’s not a sign that will fit everywhere, but if you are old enough to remember the Star Weekly, it’s going to be attractive to you. It’s painted on plywood, which gives an even surface, but offers a different texture to painted wood.

The varied script and the multiple colours (blue, red, orange and white) on a grey background would make this more complex to create, but the Star Weekly may have purchased a number of them and received a volume discount. We have had this one for a couple of decades, and haven’t seen another, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more out there. A caveat – don’t buy a sign this large, no matter how much you love it, unless you’re pretty sure that you have a place to hang it!

Some signs are gouged out of wood. This one, 38 inches wide by only 5 ½ inches high, which came from a gas station, is a conversation piece that has warmth and simplicity. It’s a solid, thick wooden board with the word “Kerosene” carved out of it and painted black. Rusted anchors on the top suggest that at one time it hung down from a horizontal pole. It could work in your home over the top of a doorway, or to anchor a display on a long wall. Maybe even outside of a car enthusiast’s hobby centre. With something like this, you either love it or you hate it. My wife Judith and I love it.

Signs don’t have to be old to be striking. “Thin ice – no skating allowed today” is relatively modern in origin, probably around the late 1970s, and is painted on plywood. At 22 x 12 inches, with red lettering on a white background, it offers a whimsical message with a possible double entendre.

Interesting signs don’t have to be large, and they don’t necessarily have to be on wood. The Dominion Express Travellers Cheques sign is on thick cardboard, with an arm on the back that swings out so that the sign can be placed for advertising display on a counter or other flat surface. It’s very Art Deco, and advertises a company once owned by the Canadian Pacific empire. The 12” x 14” image is charming, and seduces the viewer back into the 1920s and 1930s to enjoy a trip to an exotic destination, traveling in an open tourer with a knowledgeable and entertaining local guide to describe the vistas and the history.

Film history is always interesting. When combined with local history, it’s even more fascinating. A hand-drawn sign on board advertising the current films at four landmark Toronto theatres many decades ago, has great colour, calls the memory back many years to the stars and the films involved, and aims the owner toward Google to find out more. At 14 inches by 22 inches, it’s ideal for framing, particularly since it was a trifle rubbed along one side.

An Air Raid Warning Instructions sign , printed on cardboard and issued by the Ontario Government on December 26, 1941, carries echoes the Pearl Harbour attack earlier in that month. The likelihood that any bombers of ‘the enemy’ could have the range to fly all the way to Ontario is absurd, but it helps to contextualize some of the security scares that are issued now. The seriousness with which the provincial government of 1941 took the threat is underscored by the instructions “Please Hang Up Inside Your Front Door.” Found in the basement of a 1930s vintage Toronto home, the cheap cardboard has discoloured, but the wording – and the panic - is crystal clear. In keeping with the simplicity of the subject, we put the 8 ½ x 16-inch message in a plain frame.

A 1930 shipping line advertising calendar, designed to be hung as part of the signage in a travel agency. It’s on cardboard, is very colourful, is explicitly dated, and has the entire pad of monthly calendars intact. It has a height of 15 inches, and a width of only 4 inches - and we haven’t yet figured out how to display it. It’s a cross-disciplinary collectible, of interest to calendar collectors, ocean liner collectors, and sign collectors.

What is a sign? As you can sense, we define it very broadly as any advertising or informational item not executed on paper. Paper is for posters. We don’t collect posters. The universe of signs is very broad. We don’t know where we’ll find the next ‘neat’ sign, nor what it will say on it. That’s the real fun of collecting signs. There’s no specific Price Guide – only what you and the vendor agree that it’s worth. And we could find the next one at any of the shows advertised in this magazine. Happy hunting – see you at the shows.

John Sayers is a keen collector and a widely-published authority on ephemera, including postcards. He is a member of the Board of The Ephemera Society of America and the Executive of the Toronto Postcard Club, and a member of The British Ephemera Society. He can be reached at