Collecting vintage signs: how and where to find them

Vintage and antique signs are a rich and varied collecting area, as Sarah-Jane Hosegood discovers

H&A blogger Sarah-Jane Hosegood founded the weekly Twitter vintage networking event #vintagefindhour. In her blog for H&A, she writes about her most recent vintage finds and fair experiences. This month, she unpicks the latest trend for collecting vintage signs and wanders her local Somerset lanes on the hunt for rural fingerpost waymarkers...

Vintage signs, with their delicious graphics, have become such a fashionable part of our everyday surroundings it is likely that you may not pause to look at them twice.

Cafes, bars, restaurants and shops are littered with vintage signage from enamel advertising boards to quirky railway notices. Whether reproduction or sought-after original, they possess an old-school charm and patina that modern-day designs cannot compete with. In recent years, thanks to the industrial style and eclectic interiors trends, vintage signs have become a ripe area for collectors too. It’s an affordable one to get stuck into, as you can see in the feature on collecting them on page 83 of Homes & Antiques’ February issue.

Being a country girl at heart, when I think of vintage signs it is the rural fingerpost road signs that pop into my mind. Many a happy day was spent riding my pony (think Norman Thelwell-esque shenanigans) along winding lanes deep in the heart of Somerset villages.

These routes are peppered with chocolate-box white posts, each with a number of signs pointing to quaint names such as Cricket St Thomas, Haselbury Plucknett and Marston Magna. My late grandfather William Webb was employed by Somerset County Council as a sign writer and painter from the late 1940s until the 1960s. Based at the Cannards Grave depot near Shepton Mallet, it was his job to cycle out to the signposts and carry out necessary maintenance. No doubt his legacy is part of the reason I find them so attractive.

Historically, fingerpost signs are a traditional type of sign made of wood or cast iron found in the United Kingdom and Ireland. They consist of a black or white pole with arms (known as fingers) showing places and mileage painted in black against a white background.

They’ve been helping lost travellers for centuries. The oldest surviving fingerpost is thought to be sited near Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, dated 1669 and pointing to Oxford, Warwick, Gloucester and Worcester. If you look at the top of these signs, you’ll see different finials (pyramids, circles or roundels) to denote different counties. The ends of the fingers might be curved, as in Dorset, square as in Cornwall or triangular, as in Somerset.

In 1964 the Traffic Signs Regulations brought in the signing system largely used today and encouraged the removal of fingerpost signs to be replaced with new designs but, happily, it was not compulsory. Away from the major routes, fingerpost signs survived.

Yet, and quite by coincidence, a few days ago I came across a news story shared by my Twitter friend @RobinSavill highlighting the plight that these signs now face. Somerset County Council has decided that they can no longer fund the upkeep of fingerpost signs but, for those on foot, bicycle or horse, and for motorists like me who don't use satnav, these signs are a necessity. Robin has set about recruiting a team to carry out maintenance so if the council fails to save them, there is hope. In the meantime, I think I'll stick to seeking out ones for my walls.

For those who love vintage signs nostalgic appeal, original enamel advertising signs are the most commonly found. Many still retain their bold colours and they come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, which give them extra visual appeal. I particularly love the vintage enamel railway notices that, today, taken out of their intended context, add a light-hearted touch to home decoration. Garage and tea advertising signs are also popular with collectors.

Thankfully, prices for originals start from an affordable £30 for the least sought after. As always, condition, subject and scarcity can push the prices up. I came across a rare 1930s sign priced at £7,000 but, for the majority of us who fancy a little bit of vintage style, a really good example can be snapped up for around £60 to £200. Trawl reclamation yards, flea markets or online to find yours.

Images from top: Rachel Whiting/19th-century hand-painted pine tradesman sign from Miles Griffiths/© British Library

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