Sure, vintage signage is fun to look at — they have unusual typeface and punctuation that’s just so charming to our modern eyes — but when I took a look at small business signs from the past, I was surprised to see there were lessons to learn from them too.

So let’s take a look at five small business signs, spanning from 1888 – 1928.

Young & Buckby, General Blacksmith

vintage 1880s signs

There are a few things I find interesting about this 1888 blacksmith sign. For one, it’s three lines long, which in today’s world might be considered a lot. But I like that they note “Horses Carefully Shod.” While “carefully” isn’t a go-to marketing word today, a careful blacksmith was probably much appreciated then. It’s a very wise word choice.

W. Troup, Chemist & Stationer

1890s vintage signage

We’ve become so specialized these days that it’s amusing to think someone would offer their services as both a chemist (we Americans say “pharmacist”) and a stationer, as W. Troup does here in 1898. But Troup is simply establishing his expertise and smartly using the word “licensed” to establish further credibility. Credibility is always good.

T.A. Clarke

vintage 1900s sign

This 1902 sign for a grocery store has a lot going on, but it’s definitely festive! Here’s what I find interesting: At top center it states, “Under The Patronage Of His Excellency Lord Lamington.” Lamington was a baron and British politician. So Clarke is creating an association with someone famous, much like we still do today when Jessica Alba is on a billboard drinking Zico coconut water.



Above, I teased W. Troup for casting a wide net of expertise, but in this 1912 photo, you see Handy’s hone in on a specialty when they note, “Country Orders A Speciality.” It feels like a modern approach to be so specialized. Those who make country orders probably zeroed right in on that and remembered it when it was time to make that country order.

Also, they’re smartly advertising an “anniversary sale,” which manages to say two things: 1. Hey, there’s a sale! Come on in and get things for cheap! 2. It’s our anniversary, which means we’ve been in businesses for quite awhile, which means we’re credible!

D.S. Norval

1920s vintage butcher signageThere’s a few items of note here. First, look how much information is conveyed in so few words — it could fit into a tweet!

Also, D.S. Norval states the business was established in 1877. Seeing as this photo was taken in 1928, this business is touting some impressive longevity. They’re essentially saying: There’s a reason we’ve been in business so long — because we’re really, really good at what we do.

We have the name of the butcher next, who, interestingly, uses initials like two of our signs above. I wonder if initials gave a certain gravitas to the business owner or if it was just a matter of characters, even then. More characters means more space and maybe more money to paint them.

And at the bottom, the butcher indicates his specialities and associates himself with family to invoke that warm and fuzzy feeling in us. (However, for all the modern-day butchers out there, I might steer clear of placing the word “family” before “butcher.”)

Finally, how great an Instagram photo would this make? I’m a big fan of showing your employess doing their thing. If your employees are butchers, that might be too graphic, so it’s very smart to line them up in their butchers’ uniforms right in front of your shop instead .

If you’re interested in signage of the future, check out Jeff Copeland’s article on that. Or if you love things from the past, that’s a specialty (ahem) of mine — you can follow me on Twitter at @Retroette.