Tarun Goswami
2023-03-13 07:24:51



Who would have thought that enamel advertisement boards can be a part of city’s history and a collector’s item? Well, for Parimal Roy who is more famous as a collector of posters of Ray’s films, even enamel boards are significant cogs of the wheel of time and change.

The term ‘street jewellery’ denotes the enameled iron advertising signs which were commonly used between 1880s and mid 20th Century. These signs reflected in their design, typography and textual content the social and economic condition of that era. They are also considered as important evidences of marketing and early advertising policies.

It was Radhaprasad Gupta, a distinguished scholar and an expert on Calcutta who had suggested to Roy that he should build up a collection of enamel sign boards, sometime in the mid 1970s. Both were loitering on Park Street when suddenly their eyes rested on an enamel board advertising the machine made bread sold by Firpo.

And Gupta was right. It was due to the lack of concern of our scholars and historians that the sign boards were sent away abroad to Germany, France and put on display in museums on street jewellery. Enamel sign boards were made of iron sheets; silica powder was used to make the advertisements appear brighter and glossier. These sign boards became popular and were put up in the city from the beginning of last Century till the end of World War II.  They were to be found in our streets till end of 1970s after which when they were either removed or stolen. Three city based companies, Bengal Enamel, Sur Enamel and Empower Enamel, had flourished and they supplied the sign boards throughout the country.

While entering Roy’s residence on Shyamananda Road in south Calcutta you are greeted by an enamel board warning people against malaria. The British government had undertaken a drive in 1930s to warn the citizens, urging them to use mosquito nets and take quinine tablets if afflicted by the disease.

Till mid 1970s, having lunch or dinner in Firpo’s meant you were few notches up on the social ladder. It was equally famous for its machine made soft bread which was sold for an anna. The advertisement by Firpo testifies it to be good for health.

During the Swadeshi movement, Congress leaders asked people to refrain from buying foreign goods and encouraged setting up of local manufacturing units. In those days even match sticks were imported, mainly from Japan. The Esari India Match factory, Calcutta had put up a satirical advertisement where a Japanese dragon hovers over a pair of Royal Bengal tigers. Enamel boards were also put up by KMC which proclaimed, ‘Commit no nuisance’ at all important roads and crossings. Sweetmeat maker, KC Das used to advertise its products, rosogolla and rasmalai on enamel signboards.

A huge model of a record, made of enamel, advertising Columbian record on one side and HMV on the other side, was put up in front of shops selling records on Park Street and Free School Street. Tekka match boxes which became popular throughout the country used to put up ads on enamel sheets. Kamalalaya Stores on Lenin Sarani was the first departmental store in the city and it used to advertise various products on enamel advertising boards.

Roy, a collector and connoisseur of antiques said enamel sign boards became very costly when iron sheets became scarce during World War II. The firms that produced enamel boards shifted their business and began manufacturing utensils made of enamels. Enamel plates, bowls and kettles became very popular. So a rumour was purposely spread by brass artisans after their business was hit badly, saying that the bones of cows were used to manufacture the enamel plates. Hospitals and army became bulk purchaser of enamel plates till stainless steel utensils flooded the market in the mid 1960s. The enamel boards were destroyed, stolen or taken to Europe.

He regretted that the city’s history is not taught in schools or colleges and even those working in the fields of marketing and publicity are seldom interested in street jewellery. Moreover, items like enamel sign boards seldom gets the notice of collectors as these are financially less rewarding than coins or shawls.


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