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Signs of the Time: Post-Civil War Advertising

Signs of the Time: Post-Civil War Advertising – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – June 2003

By Harvey Leventhal

Soon after the Civil War, Americans were on the move and settling new, small communities all over the country. Most of these settlements were far away from the big cities, and each small town needed a doctors office, a dentist, a blacksmith, a veterinarian, and, of course, food and drinking establishments. But, there was also a need for  supplies for daily life, and general stores sprang up everywhere.

The general stores were places where anybody could get just about anything they needed. They sold grain and horse medicine, thread and cookware, tobacco and coffee, stoves and boots, and guns and ammo. These stores sold what was needed to survive during that rugged time in history. And very often, they also served as the local post office, a meeting place to exchange town gossip, and to play a game of checkers. It truly was an important place in the community.

Today it has become a passion for many people to try to restore and preserve those old stores, or at least some of the things that made them special. Many of the floor counters, display cases, fixtures, and shelving can still be found. And many of the different products that sat on those shelves — or at least their containers or accoutrements— have become quite popular to collect. There are baking soda boxes, tobacco tins, shaving brushes, medicine bottles, food containers, and so much more I would need pages to list them all.

But perhaps most popular collectibles are the advertising that promoted the products. Tin, porcelain, and paper signs as well as counter top die cut ads that stood up or laid flat are fun to find and display today. Everything from posters to figurals to coffee grinders can add much fun and color to a game room or den or kitchen. Over the last few years dye cabinets, vet cabinets, and especially spool cabinets have become extremely popular with beginning and advanced collectors. And there are so many things still out there that collectively made up the country store. Each one seems to be more colorful and creative than the next, and every item is a piece of American history.

Each piece also had to be exciting because there was no television to advertise the product. There were no radio or billboards, no flashy colored flyers in your mail everyday. Even newspapers and magazines were few and far between. So they needed to get your attention by making their products more attractive than the one next to it.  Ornate and exotic display pieces were created to help the merchant sell their products. Most companies begged for valuable wall space to display posters and signs of all shapes and sizes to promote their lines and products. It was a far cry from today’s white generic boxes, blue light specials, and plastic end cap displays.

Some collectors choose one area that appeals to them, so let’s use tobacco for an example. If you wanted to collect tobacco oriented products, you could collect tobacco packs, or string bags, or flat pockets, or cigar tins, or tobacco tins, or upright pocket tins, or humidors, or cigar bands, or ash trays, or tobacco cutters, or cigar boxes, or cigarette packs, or cigarette rolling papers, or any number of other things. I think you see my point: there is plenty to choose from. And every collecting area of antique advertising has just as many different things. You could choose a certain brand name or maker or just save it all. Take a little bit of each, and put one of those old country stores back together again. It will be one of the most rewarding and educational experiences of your life. But be forewarned! This hobby is very addictive and contagious within a household.

It will start when you find that first piece. It will look great on the shelf in the game room. Then you will find a couple more pieces. Soon, that shelf will be stuffed with little pieces of history. Next thing you know, you will be fixing up the basement because you have run out of room upstairs. Some people even buy old buildings and restore them into a country store. Let your pocket book be your guide. But one thing is for sure. If you start by buying quality pieces, and continue to buy the best things you can find, the value of your collection will grow faster than money in the bank. It has been said by some over the last 20 years that quality antiques and collectibles have had a better return on investment than stocks, bonds and CDs. Now I don’t know about you, but I would rather stare at 3 or 4 beautiful turn-of-the-century tobacco tins or even a spool cabinet than any bank statement.

Gathering of Ad Enthusiasts

Antique Advertising Association of America (AAAA) will be holding its 2003 Convention at the Holiday Inn Select in Indianapolis, Indiana on June 10 through 12 in conjunction with the Indianapolis Advertising Show in Indianapolis on June 14. The AAAA sponsors the annual event to give members an opportunity to share their common interests in popular and vintage advertising. Over 250 members from 22 states and Canada attended last year’s convention in Reading, Pennsylvania.

President Dale Larson, of Shoreview, MN, describes the membership as “a diverse group interested in collecting and preserving all forms of advertising made of paper, tin, or wood. The items they collect are signs, containers, or displays as well as varieties that intertwine. Some members specialize in tobacco or talc or coffee, some collect soda pop, candy or Americana, and some collect everything. “And that’s what makes it all fun!” he said. The large membership comes from across the United States and Canada as well as some other countries.

“There couldn’t be a better opportunity for the young collector to be initiated into the field than what this (the convention) event provides,” said. Membership Chairperson Dick Wilmes, of Elgin, IL. “You get to hob-nob with veteran collectors who are bursting with knowledge and anxious to share it with you. You are surrounded with every imaginable category of advertising. There’s room hopping to buy and sell, plus seminars and two auctions which allows you the opportunity to purchase something wonderful for your collection.”

Annual membership includes 6 issues of PastTimes. Each issue of this full color newsletter highlights a particular category or subject of advertising and features hundreds of beautifully displayed color photographs accompanied by descriptive text. Past issues have featured coffee and tobacco items, McDonald’s and Fossil, numerous advertising trade cards collections, candy, talcum, spice, and more, in over 80 issues that have been published during the AAAA’s 11-plus years.

A highlight during the convention is seeing other collector’s favorite advertising pieces which members are encouraged to bring to exhibit in a secure display area.

Information on this year’s convention can be obtained from Michael and Sharon Hunt by writing 9016 Greenlee Circle, Indianapolis, IN 46234-254, by phone at (317) 271-5602 or by e-mail:

To join the Antique Advertising Association of American, send inquiry to AAAA/Membership, P.0. Box 5851, Elgin, IL 60123 or check out their website at  The AAAA is the only club dedicated to collectors of both antique and popular advertising.

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