In your mind’s eye, picture the upstate New York farm boy in the late 1960s.
Viewing the world from the window of his granddad’s pickup, he puts newly learned reading skills to work on pure-breed livestock signs posted at neighboring farms. Decades later, signs like those are at the heart of a collection that recalls a way of life now largely gone.
“I grew up on a farm in upstate New York,” explains Jeb Fuller (who now lives in Cartersville, Ga.), “and there were a lot of dairy and beef cattle in that area then: Guernsey, Ayrshire, Angus, Hereford … But that mixture of breeds is gone now. Where there used to be a lot of Hereford and Milking Shorthorn cattle, there aren’t as many anymore. Actually, Milking Shorthorn as a breed is almost nonexistent now.”
Tin and porcelain signs, though, endure. Not in big numbers, to be sure, and only occasionally in pristine condition, but some signs have survived, and they recall a unique period in American agriculture.
“These signs capture the American ag lifestyle of that era,” Jeb says. “There was a real sense of optimism, and there was particular pride in pedigreed livestock, from poultry to cattle. Those were the last days of the true family farm, before the arrival of industrial agriculture.”
Big demand, small supply
Fast-forward to the turn of a new century. About 10 years ago, Jeb began looking for the signs as collectibles. It didn’t take long to figure out that they were in huge demand and very limited supply.
“There are a lot of people looking for these,” he says. “But it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Finding a good one is a real challenge: Normally they’ve been left out in the elements or used for target practice.” The occasional gem shines through.
“You’d be surprised how many farmers bought extra signs,” Jeb notes. “They’d keep one wrapped up in the barn. Those do show up every now and then, and those are the ones you want.”
Signs for rare breeds are the most valuable. Holstein signs from the 1950s are the most common, followed by Guernsey and Brown Swiss (bringing $400-1,200 each). “Signs for pigs seem to take a lot of abuse, for some reason,” he says. “I’ve never seen a goat sign. I’ve seen some for sheep, Hampshires and Suffolks, but they’re very rare. And I don’t think sheep breeders bought duplicate signs.”
Pure-breed livestock signs really took off in the 1950s, when breed associations began producing generic signs. Some feed companies produced signs before that. The best of the bunch show images of an animal or people. “I have a couple county fair signs, and the bulls on those have been hand-painted,” Jeb says. “That’s like finding gold. I also have a Wayne Feed sign showing a girl and six calves. Those are premium: Those are the ones people look for. They’re just great pieces of ag history.” But they don’t grow on trees.
“Ninety percent – maybe 98 percent – of feed signs won’t show an animal or person, so I’m looking for the 2 percent that do,” Jeb says. Those images drive value. “A generic Wayne Feed sign is worth less than $100,” he adds. “If it has a picture of a person or animal, it’ll sell for $800 and up. There’s a lot of demand.”
Jeb focuses on three types of livestock signs. Originally, most were made of tin. Dominant in the 1960s and ’70s, they are often found in poor condition, with marred paint and rust. Far preferable, he says, is a porcelain-over-steel sign. “Those could be out in the weather for years and not deteriorate,” he says. Used from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, porcelain signs are the gold standard. Paper signs (for interior use) were vulnerable to a variety of threats. “But every now and then you find one that wasn’t used, rolled up in a tube or something,” Jeb says.
He also distinguishes between generic and hand-painted signs. Generic signs, such as those distributed by a breed association, would carry the same image but be personalized with the breeder’s or farm’s name. Hand-painted signs were custom made by a professional painter and often featured a specific prize-winning animal. “Those are incredibly hard to find,” Jeb says.
Size is another consideration. Signs measuring 2 by 3 feet bring the highest prices. “The bigger ones (4 by 6 feet or 5 by 8 feet) become less valuable,” Jeb says. “People don’t want to ship those, they’re harder to show and they take up more space.” He also limits his collection to American signs and a few from Canada.
What makes a vintage livestock sign even more interesting? Companion pieces. “People who have dairy signs will try to find a matching milk bottle,” Jeb says. “That’s really a challenge. There were a ton of farms that bottled their own milk.”
Then there are the breed figurines. In the 1950s and ’60s, several breed associations produced models of the “perfect” animal. Today, they’re highly collectible; a Guernsey model, for instance, might sell for as much as $800. “The cattle figurines can be as big as 9 inches tall and 14 inches long,” Jeb says. “And they can be hard to find without a broken tail.”
Paper collectibles are also hot: Calendars go for a premium, Jeb says, and ag magazines from the 1950s and ’60s might sell for more than $20 a copy. “It used to be you’d go to an auction and they’d sell a box of magazines for $5,” Jeb says. “Now it’s tough to find them in lots of five or ten.”
Photographs of people showing livestock (especially shots showing ribbons or trophies) are also very collectible. “These take you back to the 1950s and ’60s,” Jeb says, “when the county fair was the highlight of the year for a farm family.”
An active market
Livestock sign values continue to escalate, Jeb says, and the supply of signs remains limited – meaning new collectors must be patient. “You’re not going to be able to build a collection in 18 months,” he says. “But sometimes, having the sign is less important than the search. I’ve talked to so many people and built friendships all over. It’s really about the journey and the people you meet along the way.”
Surprisingly, many of those Jeb has met are on the young end of the range. “Most of the people I talk to who are buying are younger,” he says. “I get a lot of calls from younger collectors; they’re very interested in that era. It’s just part of Americana. People see these signs, and they get the feeling of a different era.” FC