Skinner Inc.

Auctioneers and Appraisers

Man vs. Machine: The Timeless Art of Hand Painted Trade Signs

Painted 'BOILD EGGS BEANS PIES TEA AND COFFEE...' Shop Sign, America, late 19th century (Lot 206, Estimate: $3,000-5,000)

Painted ‘BOILD EGGS BEANS PIES TEA AND COFFEE…’ Shop Sign, America, late 19th century (Lot 206, Estimate: $3,000-5,000)

The Janie and Peter Gross Collection being offered on November 19 is “the finest and most interesting assemblage of signs that Skinner has offered in many years,” in the words of Stephen Fletcher, Skinner Executive Vice President and Director of American Furniture.

Advertising is an inescapable fact of modern life. But very few of the endless commercials, jingles, promotional handouts and newspaper inserts that bombard us today bear any comparison to 19th century trade signs for inventiveness, excellence of design, and elegance of lettering.

Lot 206 (estimate $3,000-5,000) is a 19th century shop sign hand painted on linen. The wide variety of fanciful lettering in multiple colors tempts would-be patrons with a wide variety of goods, from beans to cigars.

This visual appeal is what led graphic designer Janie Gross to assemble this collection of trade signs that promoted goods and services to passers-by on the streets of American towns and villages. She emphasizes that the signs have great historical and cultural meaning as well.

Janie claims “The nineteenth century signs are remarkably significant because they were handmade for utilitarian purposes, by tradespeople who were instinctively artistic. As we keep advancing into the digital age, the old trade signs will gain even more significance and value, as windows into the history of this country and its people.”

Paint-decorated 'Ready Mixed PAINT.' Trade Sign, America, late 19th century (Lot 208, Estimate: $3,000-5,000)

Paint-decorated ‘Ready Mixed PAINT.’ Trade Sign, America, late 19th century (Lot 208, Estimate: $3,000-5,000)

Lot 208 (estimate $3,000-5,000) combines lively shape, color, and lettering to promote the sale of house paint. The sign is the work of true artist and an advertising genius.

Skinner had the opportunity to ask Janie Gross about how her collection got started. Her response offers insight into a passion with a purpose. At a very young age, Janie developed a fondness for typography and words. While in art school, a course in hand lettering introduced her to the precise techniques of bygone days. “Over the years, I’ve changed from hand painting with a fine brush to typing the fonts on a keyboard, always weighing the level of progress of man-made versus machine-made.”

Janie has been a professional designer and artist for more than forty years, and continues her career in the field of visual communications. Her training in advertising was the foundation that forged her skills in layout, the placement of items on a page or other surface, as well as design. The result has been a fascination with the most basic form of advertising: signage.

We asked what characteristics led her to choose the particular items in her collection. Janie answered that “Knowledge of font styles and layout are fundamentals for creating effective signage.” The signs she chose are prime examples of excellence in those qualities.

Carved, Black-painted, and Gilt 'RARE BOOKS WILLIAM TODD' Trade Sign, America, late 19th century (Lot 219, Estimate $1,000-1,500)

Carved, Black-painted, and Gilt ‘RARE BOOKS WILLIAM TODD’ Trade Sign, America, late 19th century (Lot 219, Estimate $1,000-1,500)

Lot 219 (estimate $1,000-1,500) combines imaginative outline and spare use of highly legible lettering to create a hard-to-resist invitation tempting bibliophiles to William Todd’s shop.

Janie sums up her collection and its guiding principles with this statement. “I always searched for well-executed lettering, as well as interesting patina, color and design… in other words, the overall spirit of the signs that was executed by its creator.”

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