By the late 1800s, thousands of farmers across the country had created a fast-growing market for better machinery, seed and production items. To provide information and help build brand and product loyalty, manufacturers advertised heavily.
Advertising items included printed ads, match holders, watch fobs, calendars, thermometers, song books and signs. Today, those items – including pieces made well into the 20th century – are very collectible. They are often colorful, eye-catching and give a glimpse of early product design and company history.
While many sign collectors look for almost anything, others specialize. Curtis Barwick, Clinton, N.C., likes farm-related pieces.
“Sign collecting is very enjoyable,” he says. “There are many beautiful signs out there that need to be preserved, especially from defunct businesses. The signs are part of our history that needs to be saved.”
Curtis has about 100 farm-related signs, plus several advertising thermometers and clocks. He became interested in those items a few years ago, after years of collecting farm truck license plates and smaller items, including seed and fertilizer notebooks.
“I like feed and fertilizer signs the best, especially from area companies and ones that pertain to tobacco production,” he says. “Most signs are metal, with a few porcelains, and a few are fairly rare.”
Many signs were originally displayed by seed, feed, fertilizer and machinery dealers. Often they were fairly large and were mounted on store walls or hung over a front door. Others were given to farmers to nail on building walls or fences for public display. But most have been removed from their original locations; a collector would be considered lucky to find one still in place.
“I find many signs at antique stores, but mostly from other collectors,” Curtis says. “Ag-related ones are sometimes not as popular, so they are often cheaper in comparison to soft drink and oil company items. I have gotten several signs from old feed mills and fertilizer dealers.”
Curtis displays a few signs in his home office, with the rest in two small barns nearby. Weatherproof storage space is a must when collecting signs, he adds.
Some cleaning and preservation work is suggested, mostly to prevent deterioration.
“I clean most with Armor All,” he says. “It depends on the type of sign and condition. Greased Lightning cleans porcelain pretty well. I wax some signs, but you can take paint off with wax if you’re not careful, especially from sun-faded signs. I put white lithium grease on any nicks on porcelain signs to stop rust.”
Sign prices vary widely, Curtis says. Some he’s gotten for the asking, while others have cost him hundreds of dollars, depending on rarity, condition, age and collectibility of the issuer.
Condition is a key factor in value
“A metal 1930s John Deere dealer’s sign with the four-legged leaping deer can bring from around $1,000 for one in fair condition, to around $1,800 for one that’s excellent,” says auctioneer Blaine Rentzel, Emigsville, Pa.
Non-deteriorated signs with colorful or ornate designs will usually command higher prices than equally rare but rusty, chipped or bent pieces.
The age of a given sign can sometimes be determined by the manufacturer’s mark or logo. Collectibility can be tied to corporate identities. Rentzel says signs often bring more if issued by a defunct company from the surrounding area, versus those issued by a national or far-off firm. A Sheppard Diesel Truck sign (tin, 3- by 4-foot) recently fetched $2,000 at an auction near Hanover, Pa., where the trucks were made.
Auctioneer Carl Kimble, Stewartsville, Mo., says tin feed dealer signs are popular in his cow-calf and feeding area. He recalls a 2- by 4-foot Sweet Lassey Feeds sign in very good condition bringing nearly $200.
Similarly, Buddy Griffin, an auctioneer from Ottawa, Kan., says feed and concentrates signs have a very solid market, especially those that are scarcer and in better condition.
“Moorman supplement signs are sought by many collectors,” Griffin says. “One that comes to mind was a 12- by 16-inch tin Moorman’s sign with a dairy cow pictured. That sign brought $80. Another 14- by 20-inch Moorman’s sign with a space for the property owner’s name on it sold for $40.”
Would-be collectors must act quickly
“He who hesitates is lost,” says Curtis. “If you see an old sign on a barn, don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes you may be the first. Or you may be the hundredth person to ask. Many times the answer is ‘no,’ but you can still get some good ones. Be persistent, but also be careful, since it’s easy to get too excited and spend a lot of money on these items.”
Curtis considers himself a “bit player” in sign collecting.
“I know many guys probably have more and better signs,” he says, “but I’m proud of my collection, and its variation in types.” FCFor more information: Curtis Barwick, Clinton, NC.Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.