We’ve been to flea markets from San Francisco to Amsterdam, and no matter where we go we always spot irresistible vintage signs. Old signs have the kind of built-in charm that makes flea market decorating so exciting. We love the signs for old-timey products like “Japp’s Hair Rejuvenator” that we saw at the Nashville fairgrounds. Character signs like ones featuring the Michelin Tire Man or Mr. Peanut always knock our socks off, too. We especially like trade shingles that include a hanging symbol of the service being offered, like scissors for a tailor. The Portobello Market in London had a great one for a Cobbler Shoppe with a giant carved shoe, but it was too big to lug home!
Tin Is In
Once you start looking, you’ll notice that tin advertising signs abound. These ads for soda pop, tobacco, and beer are clever and colorful. But beware! These collectibles are almost always reproductions. To tell the new from the old, keep a few tips in mind. Antique metal signs are printed on thicker tin, won’t be as vivid as retro copies, and usually cost over $100. If you find a bright, shiny “Coca Cola Five Cents” sign for $10, it is probably not “The Real Thing.”
Growing up in sunny Florida, we couldn’t drive a mile on a back road without seeing a piece of wood handwritten with “U Pick ’Em Strawberries.” Maybe that’s why we are drawn to primitive signs that look more like folk art than advertising. At the Rose Bowl Flea Market, we went gaga over a cutout goose that read “Goose Eggs 15¢.”
And at the Alameda Antique Faire, we flipped for a “Pig Roast” standee––painted on a pig, of course. We spotted our favorite “make-do” sign at the Mount Dora swap meet near Orlando. It was a plank for “Bob’s Bait Shop” and listed nightcrawlers, worms, crickets, and “other bugs.” Bob says, “If we don’t have it, you can’t fish with it.”
What’s Your Sign
Vintage cardboard placards are about the cheapest signs you’ll find, sometimes going for as little as $10 each. Many were mass-produced for lunch counters and grocers. “Ice Cold 7-up Sold Here!” “Florida Oranges! Packed With Sunshine!” These affordable charmers can liven up your home and bring a smile to your guests’ faces. Look for Woolworth’s die-cuts featuring pictures of pie, then hang them in the guestroom as a playful touch. A sign for Sylvania Radio tubes can be balanced on a shelf between books in the study. Or run a selection of “today’s” ice cream flavors along the wall from the den to the living room, like your own delicious Burma-Shave hallway.
Signed, Sealed, And Delivered
If you are lucky enough to have the budget for a big piece of art, consider getting a one-of-a-kind sign instead! We saw a large wooden fish painted with “Kelly’s Fresh Fish” that would be eye-catching hung over a couch. And one of the fun things about decorating with signs is that the further you remove them from their original purpose, the more decorator flair they get. So why not put a public telephone plaque over the bathroom door? Or hang a carnival game sign in the kitchen, “Break 3, Win A Prize.” Just don’t hang them all in one room or your house will look like a T.G.I. Fridays!
Expect To Pay
Valencia Oranges $4
Woolworth Die-cut Desserts $5-10
Orange Sherbet $10
Dr. Lynas’ Hair Grower $20
Atlas Steel Foundry With Thermometer $20
Free Lemons $80
Vit-A-Way Livestock Feed $95
Peaches and Berries $250
Local and Long Distance Telephone $300
Pig Roast Sun. $375
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