The History of Signage: Part 2


Porcelain Enamel and the first illuminated signage, the Gaslight Sign.

Porcelain and Gaslight Signs

Welcome back to part 2 of The History of Signage blog series. If you missed part 1, The Origins of Signage, you could read it here, where we left off on the regulation of signs. Here at Black Blue White, we are more than just Ipswich and Brisbane custom sign specialists; we are self-confessed signage nerds, passionate about design and artwork and marrying the two together.

Thus, we find the history of signage and its evolution fascinating. This article will look at the next stage of the signage history; porcelain signs and the first illuminated signage, the gaslight signs.

Porcelain sign history

Porcelain signs, also known as enamel signs or porcelain enamel signs, originated in Germany and Austria around 1850, when sign makers first applied porcelain enamel to sheet steel. The resulting process for porcelain signs was complex. It consisted of feature layers of powdered glass, painstakingly fused, colour by colour, onto a base of heavy rolled iron. From there, it would be die-cut into any number of shapes.

Porcelain signage never really caught on as a form of advertising until the early 1900’s when it was realised that the porcelain enamel could last for hundreds of years, making them highly durable and an excellent long-term investment.

The first porcelain signs were imported to the United States in the 1890s, and their use in advertising took off. As the access to the materials increased and the costs subsequently decreased, many companies, both big and small, climbed on board the Porcelain train. Standard Oil Company of New York and Gulf Oil Company had porcelain signs made that were both served as beautiful works of art and conveyer of information regarding their products.

However, it was not only Motor Oil companies that used porcelain signage, but most companies that sold a product. Such types of business to use porcelain signage included:

  • Western Union promoting their telegram services
  • Anthracite companies advertising how well their coal burns
  • Breweries claiming their lager is the best in town
  • Authorised Service of Vespa Scooters companies

Businesses creation of logo’s also vastly increased during the porcelain sign era. In fact, the creativity and art used in porcelain advertising signs was so prevalent and popular in The United States that they soon became collector’s items. Over time they have been reworked and bent into new works of art and you can still find some today displayed in museums, restaurant walls, and even sold online in antique porcelain advertising sign marketplaces.

As a result, porcelain-enamelled advertising signs are a significant part of not only the history of signage but advertising history. Highly in-demand by collectors, there will always be a market for porcelain signs due to their history, the companies behind them and the fact they are unique and beautiful works of art.



Gaslight signage

Before electricity became widespread and economical for general use, gas was the preeminent outdoor and indoor lighting method in signage history. Early gas lights were ignited manually, but later designs became self-igniting.

Gas lighting is artificial light produced from the combustion of gaseous fuels or natural gas. The light is produced either directly by the flame, generally by using unique mixes of illuminating gas to increase the brightness or indirectly with other components. As such, the gas functions as a fuel source.

Today, most people will associate gas lighting with camping, where the modular nature of canisters (a strong metal container) provides bright and long-lasting light cheaply and without complex equipment. In addition, some urban historical districts retain gas street lighting, and gas lighting is used indoors or outdoors to create or preserve a nostalgic effect.

The gaslight sign was one of the first illuminated signs used for advertising and marketing purposes. Think of the modern electric neon signs but powered by gas. While the era of gaslight signs was short, it played an integral role in the history of signage.

The first illuminated sign using gaslighting technology dates to 1841. P.T. Barnum’s Museum advertised using a gaslight sign display out front. People noticed for the apparent reason that it could be seen at night. Museum patronage must have skyrocketed because the use of gaslight signage spread fast. Soon enough, Gaslight signs displayed out the front of:

  • Theatre marquees
  • Tetail shops
  • Drug stores

After the world wars, the gaslight signage industry evolved significantly with its spread to the United States. Many 19th-century photos of New York city streets show the ancestors of today’s LED and neon light signs. Gas-lit signs peppered the night-time streets of New York and Europe long before electric-powered lamps replaced them.

There were different forms of Gaslight signs. Some were basic gas lamps with lettering or symbols painted on their glass globes. Then there were more sophisticated designs, using perforated sheet metal casings that foreshadowed today’s modern electric signs.

It is almost impossible to find surviving examples of gas-lit signs today. Largely due to the fact they became obsolete once electric signage came out, it seems hardly any have survived to the present day. At least we here at our custom signs Brisbane store have not been able to track any down. We are sure there must be one out there somewhere!

However, we managed to find a few pictures below to give you an idea of how gaslight signs looked.

The Signs of the Times magazine describes gaslight signs as the following:

“As a rule, they were of box construction, with the gas jets inside. The sides of the box were usually studded with varicoloured glass jewels outlining the letters. These signs were usually found outside of drug stores, oyster houses, etc.” – E.A. Mills of the New York Edision Co. in 1922.



Simple gas signs were ordinary gas lamps with letters or symbols painted on their glass globes. From the Mitchell, Vance & Co. catalogue. (NYPL)



A gaslight sign on Washington Square West, 1894. (NYU)


Ipswich and Brisbane Custom Signage

Unfortunately, both porcelain-enamel signage and gaslight signs are not part of our custom signage service. The methods and materials are simply too old! However, we do offer a wide variety of artwork at our Ipswich and Brisbane custom sign solutions, including:

  • Acrylic signs
  • Illuminated signs
  • Print signs
  • Digital signs
  • Neon light signs
  • Wall art
  • Canvas prints
  • Photography
  • 3D signs and wall art
  • Wallpaper graphics
  • Hand-painted signage

To learn more about what we do and can do for your business and brand, feel free to reach out to us for a friendly and professional service anytime.

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