Cecil collector celebrates advertising’s Golden Age
Special to the Whig
— The interior of Jeff Powers’ brightly lit, twocar garage could serve as an automobile showroom. The lifelong Cecil County resident’s garage walls are decorated with colorful vehicle-related advertisements – produced by auto manufacturers, service stations and automotive supply companies during the 1920s through 1950s, a period some experts consider advertising’s Golden Age.
The 55-year-old General Motors retiree, who currently works as an assistant at Patterson Funeral Home in Perryville, is quick to share a story associated with every sign, thermometer, oil bottle and even the full-sized, restored 1950s gas pump standing outside his garage entrance.
Powers said he began collecting key chains when he was a youngster. Today, he focuses on a wider range of objects that make up his numerous collections, including NASCAR memorabilia, mason jars, old crocks, bottles, oil cans, and advertising found on signs, cabinets, clocks, thermometers and other items.
“Advertisements are one of my passions,” Powers said. “I love the content. The artwork. A lot of those items are related to automobiles, but it can be anything that catches my eye.” Such as: A six-foot wide, oval, porcelain ESSO gas station sign, made in the 1960s, found in Charlestown;
A three-foot-tall Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco, hand-painted thermometer sign, made in the 1940s;
An array of Mason jars, produced by manufacturers around the country;
A 1930s, TEEM, lemonlime drink, thermometer discovered in Whitesville, W. Va.;
A Pepsi Cola clock, made
An assortment of motor oil cans sit on a shelf in Jeff Powers’ garage.
in 1957, found at a local Shell station, displayed beside a large Pepsi bottle cap, a survivor from the 1940s;
Rows of vintage motor oil cans from different auto supply companies;
Black-and-white photographs of historic Cecil County small town family businesses;
A large Prestone Antifreeze thermometer display, made in the 1930s, salvaged from a garage in Baltimore.
Pointing toward his Mail Pouch thermometer, Powers said, “Look at all that vibrant color and the design. It grabs your eye. And all this artwork was real, not computer generated. I call all of these pieces ‘ advertising art,’ because that’s what it is, true art that captures your attention.”
Expressing his disappointment in modern advertising, Powers explained many companies today focus on their logos, as opposed to the products they make. But, he added, one reason is more new businesses offer services that are intangible – such as banking, communications and Internet related
“You used to see a sign,” Powers said, “and you knew what the product was immediately. Now you have to work at it to find the name or what the product is. A lot changed when computers started taking over the world. Technology has changed advertising a lot.”
But the shift doesn’t stop collectors from seeking out attractive pieces of the past and adding them to their collections.
When asked the value of a number of items, Powers expressed minimal interest, mainly because his collectibles aren’t for purchase.
“Nothing I have is for sale,” he said. “I’m not a dealer or a picker, like you see on TV. They do it to make a profit. I find pieces and display them because I enjoy it.”
Pointing to a carrying rack – holding eight, thick glass bottles, with pointed metal spouts – Powers explained these quart bottles were used in the 1920s, to sell oil to motorists. Metal cans replaced the glass bottles. Today, most quart containers of oil are made of plastic.
Each item or sign tells a story, he said, about what it was used for, where it stood, where it came from, how it was found, and how it ended up in the collector’s hands.
When asked to name his favorite, Powers pointed to his Lance Cracker Dispenser.
The red-trimmed, glass and metal rectangular boxes were found in gas stations throughout the country in the 1950s. Filled with packets of crackers, customers followed the honor system, by leaving money inside the box for the number of packages they took with them on the road. Powers found his favorite find in a garage. It had been in a service station in Port Deposit.
Pointing to a DuPont Company clock, Powers said, “When a company is sold or taken over,” Powers said, “it’s great for collectors.”
Explaining his statement, Powers said two things occur. The new parent company disposes of all the old logos and advertising products, making them instantly available for free, or very cheaply, to interested par- ties. Also, over time the value of these salvaged items increase, because they are no longer being manufactured or available.
While there is a large community of collectors, some of whom share information and are always on the hunt, it’s not a closed society that requires dues or an application process.
“We’re all collectors,” Powers said. “Most people do it just out of habit, or do it subconsciously. Of course, more serious people do it in an organized way.”
While focusing on discovering objects to add to already existing collections, Powers admits he’s always open to new finds.
With so many people out and about, collecting their own particular cherishables, one wonders if any bargains remain, waiting to be discov- ered and snatched up.
Without hesitation, Powers said there are plenty of treasures available for those interested in going on the hunt. From Depression glass on Goodwill store shelves, to oddities tucked away in barn-size antique malls.
But, Powers cautioned, “It’s best to start with one thing, and study to understand it. And don’t just stick it in a pile in the back room. Have a place to display it, and enjoy it. Otherwise you’ll end up being a hoarder.”
A lot of people go on web sites like eBay, where they buy pieces for their collections.
Powers said, “I think if you go out and find it by yourself, it’s a whole different thing.”
To suggest a Cecil collector to profile, email email@example.com.
Jeff Powers stands beside a 1940s-era bean top gas pump he restored.