The Social Context
For the social historian the advent of mass advertising serves as an invaluable window through which the life of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries can be viewed.
For earlier periods we are dependant for such insights on those few buildings and cultural and domestic relics which have survived, and which generally reflect the life of only a small section of society.
Early mass advertising, of which the enamel sign is a significant and well preserved part, reflects the needs, desires, aspirations and requirements of a large section of industrial society, in particular the working and lower middle classes. It is a primary source of evidence of the fact that by the 1890s these sections of the populace were forming a significantly consumer based society, with an appreciable amount of disposable income.
Various products which before the era of mass industrial production would have been classed as luxury goods, were now within the grasp of a large section of society.
Raleigh, the all-steel bicycle, Singer sewing machines, Petter's Oil Engines for electric light generation , are just a few examples of this.
Increasing literacy is reflected not only in the increasing use of the written word in advertising, but also by signs advertising writing materials (Swan and Stephens' inks, and MacNiven & Cameron's and Waterman's pens).
Increased awareness of hygiene and cleanliness is seen in the preponderance of soap and other cleaning product advertisements (Rinso, Sunlight, Pears, Jeyes) while improved conditions of comfort are indicated by the implied ability to purchase such domestic accessories as carpets, brass bedsteads (Maples, A.R. Dean Selo), and even homes (Halifax, National).
Captured in its infancy is that product which so perfectly symbolises the age of mass production and popular affluence - the motor car (Morris, Ford, motoring ancillary products and insurance).
The current face of advertising is so quickly outdated and superseded that we are accustomed to constant novelty in the medium. Advertising forms, too, are ephemeral. Thus when a person who has been aware of consumer marketing campaigns for several decades is confronted with an example of advertising in a form that has long since vanished it is often with a feeling of friendly familiarity, that s/he will recognise and appreciate the old advertisement.
This syndrome is particularly true of the enamelled iron sign, since from the time when they were first introduced, they were intended to remain sited for a long period. They became landmarks in a local area, so that in guiding a stranger on his way it must have come naturally to direct him to "Turn right at the church and left at the Woodbine sign". The familiarity and the association of the sign with the products they advertised and the evocation of using these products, raises a wave of nostalgia and sentimental association in the minds of those able to remember enamel signs as an everyday feature of their environment.
For the older generation, the sight of a sign bearing the picture of a packet of Hudson's soap powder may well spark off a recall of washday, with all the associations of the smell of clothes in hot soapy water, the regular sloshing of a dolly stick in the copper, and the noisy gossip and clamour of housewives at the wash-house and mangling shop.
Of those born before 1950, who, even now, can remain unmoved by the allure of Tizer the Appetizer (and those summers that seemed so much longer and hotter), Palethorpe's sausages (a delicious whiff of breakfasts past), when due to the prevalence of their respective advertising campaigns these products' trade names became synonymous with the products themselves?
Fry's Five Boys chocolate still remembered vividly by the immediate post war generation - the archetypal symbols of the boy's face in different moods still raises a delighted grin on the observer's own face. However the Pavlovian association with mouth-watering chocolate can only lead to desperation since the product is no longer available; all that is left is a sense that whether true or false, everything seemed to taste so much better in the good old days!
So it is with much of the produce advertised on these old signs; gone but not forgotten.
Many companies still thrive who used the enamel medium to promote their goods, and who are now prime users of magazine space, movie adverts and television time. Many others, however are as defunct as the medium itself.
As a wistful and perhaps too optimistic thought: could it be up to the present generation, with its championship of conservation and non-expendability to resurrect the enamel sign as a tree-saving, environmentally enhancing form of advertising, with built in non-obsolescence, becoming again "The Plate That Outlasts All Others"?