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Patent Enamel Co. (Birmingham)

This company built in 1889 at Selly Oak, Birmingham, England, the first factory specifically devoted to enamelled iron sign making.

It had twelve furnaces for fusing the enamel, two scaling furnaces, as the iron required to be scaled and stretched, and a large printing room, plus a huge area for steampipe drying. The company also smelted its own enamels and colour oxides.

A railway siding ran into the factory, which also had its own canal arm and stables.

It is believed that the factory was decommissioned and demolished in the 1960's.

Following Baugh's lead, other firms sprang up throughout Britain. Some of the largest, whose names can still be found in the small print on many signs, were Chromo of Wolverhampton, Imperial of Birmingham, The Falkirk Iron Co., and Bruton's, Wood and Penfold, Burnham's (subsequently Onyx), and Garnier's (the latter two still in operation), all of London.

Much historical and technical data herein is based on information supplied by Ivor Beard, a director of the late Patent Enamel Co., he being the last of three generations of his family to work there, his grandfather having been a co-founder with Benjamin Baugh. He recalls the hey-day of enamel sign manufacture during his boyhood and how during his working life he watched, with regret, the decline in demand which he claims coincided particularly with the end of railway expansion.

He recalls several attempts to revitalise the industry by mergers between companies, notably the big three - Patent, Chromo and Imperial. But these measures came to nothing with the onset of the Depression years.

Further problems and crises during and after WWII included an acute steel shortage, when rationing precluded the use of this vital commodity for advertising purposes. Aluminium, which was cheaper and more readily accessible, served as an alternative for a while, but true enamel sign making on the grand scale was gone forever by the 1950s.

Also at this time many of the old enamel sign plants were taken over by manufacturers of baths and cookers for their in-factory enamelling facilities.

Amalgamations and single company franchise of petrol stations and breweries meant that fewer types of signs were needed and thus orders were denied to the industry.

Simultaneously trade was being constantly lost as small businesses, such as ice-cream makers, bakers and manufacturers of soft drinks declined in the face of competition from large combines (which anyway favoured other advertising techniques). The demise of the small firm and the development of chain stores - although some of these e.g. Walter Willson still used enamels to advertise - meant that the small local enamelling firms also went out of business for lack of custom.