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A Legacy of Tramp Art
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This book presents over 600 historical images and introduces newly discovered artists of tramp art. Made from society’s discards, primarily wooden cigar boxes and wooden crates, tramp art is the story of the common man, unschooled in the arts, taking a simple tool to carve a legacy from the heart for all to enjoy and celebrate.
                                   
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Signs Along the Way
by Bob Brooke

 


Today, Americans are aware of litter along their highways and byways—and that includes a multitude of signs along the way. In recent years, Americans have made an effort to rid their highways of unsightly distractions. But in the earlier days of automobiles from the beginning to mid-20th century, signs of every sort advertising every imaginable product, convenience, and service that an interstate traveler could desire bombarded drivers as they rode along.



Now these signs have become highly collectible. When it comes to icons of the open road, few objects convey wanderlust better than those black-and-white, shield-shaped porcelain signs with the word “Route” at the top and the number below.

Burma-Shave launched its famous and successful roadside advertising campaign on Route 66 and countless other byways in 1927. Between that year and 1963, the shaving-cream company posted some 600 jingles, each of which unfolded as motorists whizzed past a half-dozen or so sequential wooden, rectangular signs, which just about always ended with the brand’s name.



The signs, painted red with white letters, spelled out catchy jingles. In the early years of the campaign, the company’s messaging to drivers was fairly straightforward: “Bargain hunters/Gather round/Fifty cents/Buys/Half a pound/Burma-Shave.” By the 1960s, though, copy writers at the company’s ad agency were having a bit more fun. “We don’t/Know how/To split an atom/But as to whiskers/Let us at ’em/Burma-Shave.” Back in those days, drivers weren’t going as fast as they are today, so they could take time to read the signs.

Unfortunately, Burma-Shave made their signs of wood as inexpensively as possible, so few survive today. Vintage porcelain signs are more durable. Collectors favor actual highway signs, as well as signs designating scenic and named routes.

For example, between World War I and the 1930s, brown rectangular porcelain signs for the Pikes Peak Ocean To Ocean Highway could be seen from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Black-and-white oval signs depicting horses pulling a Conestoga wagon marked the overlap between the growing U.S. highway system of the 1930s and the historic Santa Fe Trail.

Other signs, erected in the 1920s by organizations such as the California State Auto Association, helped drivers calculate distances to their destinations. These yellow, diamond-shaped signs, often posted at highway intersections, had mileages of landmarks to the left and right highlighted with the help of black arrows.

Signs that indicated approved service stations are also of interest to collectors. In the 1920s, for example, the Wisconsin Motorists Association placed a dated sign every year on the sides of repair shops it deemed good enough to be identified as an “Official Garage.” In fact, signs were frequently the only assurance an out-of-town traveler had of a business’s reputation.

Other signs lured weary travelers from their vehicles. “Public Telephone” signs with an arrow, letters, and symbol, dotted with reflectors known as jewels could be found alongside roads across the country. Once they had pulled over, travelers would use the stop as a chance to fill up or find a restroom. Flanged or riveted porcelain signs marked with symbols for men and women designated facilities.

Restroom signs ranged from simple rectangles with blue-and-white stripes and alternating white-and blue letters to fancier signs with “Ladies” and Men” written out in cursive and a silhouette of a top-hatted gentleman and woman carrying a parasol to the side. Some restrooms signs displayed perhaps too much detail about their virtues---“Ladies Rest Room Equipped With Sanitary Seat Covers”—while others admonished customers in advance not to be such slobs---“Help Keep This Place Clean!”

One of the major types of signs created for public transportation systems dealt with cleanliness, especially after World War I, when tuberculosis and influenza were serious health problems.

Blue porcelain signs with white letters, designed to be placed inside railway and trolley cars, got right to the point---“Spitting On The Floor Of This Car Positively Prohibited By Order Of The Board Of Health.” Signs from the 1930s in stations and platforms of the New York City subway system even spelled out the punishment---“$500 Fine, A Year In Prison, Or Both.”

Collectors also prize signs for public and private transit systems, whether it’s a green-and-white oval for the Pomona Bus Lines, an orange, black, and white circle to mark the location of the depot for the Inland Stage, or the myriad variations of signage created for Greyhound.

Diecut signs in the 1920s and 1930s typically paired the word “Greyhound,” an image of a bus, and a picture of the famous dog with the name of the regional Greyhound affiliate, from Atlantic to Pacific. Oval signs in the 1940s focused on the white purebred and the words “Greyhound Lines” in orange.

Nostalgia plays a bit part in sign collecting. Often a sign a collector will seek out a particular sign based on there they grew up or vacationed. The Market Street Railway ran trains in San Francisco in the 1930s, and its diecut porcelain signs featured two shades of green, a center section in lipstick red, and white letters, some of which proudly proclaimed the company’s role in “Improving San Francisco.”

Sightseers and winter-sports enthusiasts near Portland, Oregon might prefer a badge-shaped sign from the same era marking the location of the depot for the Mt. Hood Stages. This handsome example of porcelain art features the snow-caped mountain against an orange sky, an Art Deco style bus below, and silhouetted trees on either side to frame the composition.

Antique road signs that were built before 1950 are a hot commodity for any antique memorabilia collector, and can range from stop or yield signs, street signs, traffic marker signs, guide signs, highway signs, rail road signs, speed limit signs and many more. Some collectors prefer to collect antique road signs from a specific area or region, while others like to collect antique road signs from a certain time period.

Older stop signs are typically yellow and black. The now common red and white ones didn’t appear until the early 1950s.

Road sign collectors love early porcelain enamel road signs. These signs originated in Germany but were very common in the U.S. between 1890 and 1950. Manufacturers used a base of heavy rolled iron, later coated with colored powdered glass and fired in a kiln. Because of this process, early porcelain enamel road signs tended to be more weather-resistant and durable.

American road sign designers eventually started using silkscreens and a steel base instead of iron to make these signs, and later started using tin bases instead of steel when porcelain enamel became too expensive.

Porcelain enamel road signs which were built between 1890 and 1950 are considered to be the most expensive and rare, as well as antique rail road signs. Antique road signs, or more specifically, antique speed limit road signs which have jewels embedded inside of the numbers drive up the value of the item. Collectors do not recommend restoring antique road signs.

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