Once upon a time, people in North America—though probably more in the USA than here in The Great Snowy North—were wild about decals. Water-transfer travel decals could be found on your buddy’s Winnebago or Aunt Velma’s station wagon showing off all the places they’ve been. Maybe Uncle Bernie had something a little risque on his boat.
They were brightly-coloured, a pain in the ass to install, and treated in much the same way as postcards and modern stickers: as a memento of places seen and things enjoyed. Decals like this were affordable, too. You could find them in a variety of stores, or you could order them from catalogues to decorate your kitchen with a hellish amalgamation of fruit and pin-up girls, if you so desired.
Water transfer decals, also known as water slide decals, are descended from Henry Lowenberg’s method of decalcomania: a design printed on transparent paper with gum on the printed side. Once the paper was put on an envelope, for example, it would be impossible to remove without leaving the printed design behind. His invention was meant to stop people from using postage stamps more than once. The cheap bastard.
Not that it was ever used for that purpose or anything relating to mail.
Instead, decalcomania became the decals we know and love. Mostly.
This method was not without its problems, as I hinted earlier: decals during the peak of decal-mania were prone to sticking to anything and everything if they managed to get even a little bit wet—even their own wax packaging! They tended to scratch easily unless varnished after installation, and it was common to buy multiples of a desired design just in case.
Impko: King of the Travel Decal
Impko produced a wide range of souvenir items from their New Jersey location—postcards, pennants, bumper stickers, and more. Their decals sold for 10 to 15 cents a piece, and the majority of their products were silk-screened. This method produced simple, brightly coloured designs that were immediately recognizable. Wherever you went, you could find an Impko decal for that location and add it to your collection—or your car.
Information on the company is difficult to come by. They ceased to exist by the 1970s, likely because they were purchased by Trench Manufacturing Co., a big pennant company at the time. Trench was interested in the way Impko made their pennants and bought the company so they could use their patented process.
You can still find vintage stock of Impko’s line on the internet, through sites such as Etsy and eBay, as well as on various blogs. If you’d like, you can learn more about Trench Manufacturing Co. from K.R. Biebesheimer’s blog, Pennant Fever.
Duro Decal Co., Inc: The Survivor
Oh, there were so many companies that produced decals—but Duro Decal Co. is the only one left standing. Now known as Duro Art Supply, they are best known as the manufacturer of pressure-sensitive lettering for signs, boats, mailboxes, windows, and other surfaces. They still make those, by the way.
Duro participated in the travel decal trade, though not to the same extent as Impko. They offered a large variety of generally-decorative pieces like fruit, animals, miscellaneous characters, pin-ups…
To be fair, I don’t quite recall if the above decal was a Duro or not. The style is very much like theirs.
When Duro was producing decals they advertised them as being “for every purpose”, something that could be applied on anything, anywhere—from a steamship to a watermelon and everything in-between.
Yeah, I don’t know why they specified putting them on watermelons, either.
These days, you’ll have to settle for buying paintbrushes and other art supplies from them. As with Impko’s stuff, you can still find Duro products on the usual marketplaces.
If you get your hands on one of their catalogues, please show me. I’ll be very jealous but also highly excited for you because that is definitely a neat thing to get your hands on.
Back to the Present
Although the companies that made them are (mostly) gone, the products they made still exist, tucked away in derelict print shops and among antique collections. Enterprising entrepreneurs can purchase decal paper to use to make their own, and it’s even compatible with most inkjet printers. You can find and purchase waterslide decal paper here (affiliate link).
Is it likely that we’ll see an eruption of new transfer decals hitting markets any time soon? Probably not. At least, not to the same degree that we saw them in the 1950s and 1960s.
Do you have any old decals in your collection? Share them here in the comments, tell us all about what you’ve found!