Signs of the Times: Livestock Signs Recall Different Era

Vintage livestock signs have become big business – and collector Jeb Fuller has the inside scoop

| February 2010

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.”