The Evolution of Signs: Part 1 – The Origins of Signage

History of signage

Every day we look at and read signs. Whether it be looking for directions, observing a storefront’s brand, or distinguishing between the men and ladies restrooms, we are constantly viewing signs. Most of the time we do this unconsciously and we rarely give a thought to where and when signage originated.

As Ipswich and Brisbane custom signs makers, we need to understand the evolution of signage to appreciate the signs we make today. You could say we are sign geeks. Therefore, in this series of articles, we cover the origins and development of signage and the purposes they serve up to the present day.

When did signage begin?

The origins of signage date back to ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Yes, signs go back a long way. 3000 BC to be precise. Yet signs back then were vastly different to what we see today. For starters, humans could not read yet; thus, they relied on symbols to convey messages. Most non-verbal communication was done through symbolism, delivered by signage.

The first signs were made with raw materials. After all, that is all they had to work with back then. Some of the materials used for early signage included:

  • Stone
  • Wood
  • Terra Cotta
  • Bricks

Additionally, signs were carved or painted onto the sides of buildings and the interior walls. One of the most widely used signs in early Roman civilization was a bush of ivory vine leaves associated with Bachus, the God of wine. These were attached to a pole to identify a tavern. Yes, some of the first modern signs were used to let people know how to find booze. First things first!

However, much like today, ancient signage came about to communicate and convey information such as distances and directions between towns and cities.

It was only a matter of time, however, that signage was commercialized.

The commercialization of signage

Post the dark ages, there was an increase in trade in both the West and East civilizations. Subsequently, commerce exploded and with it the use of signs for commercial purposes.

Promotional and retail signage developed independently in the East and the West. The ancient Romans used signboards for shop fronts as well as to announce public events., usually made from stone or terracotta. They also displayed signs on the outer walls of forums, shops, and marketplaces. These were known as albums. Such signs were used to identify certain trades such as:

  • Stonemason
  • Locksmith
  • Carpenter
  • Bookstore
  • Barber

Amazingly, the red and white barbers’ pole that we recognize today dates to these times. Incredible that it has survived into modern-day use.

On the Eastside, China exhibits a deep history of early retail signage systems. One such example is that of the white rabbit brand of sewing needles from China’s Song Dynasty period (960- 1127 CE). The white rabbit is an example of symbolism and signage that has survived through to the modern-day to become a highly developed brand in retail signage.

This stems from the fact that, during the Song Dynasty, Chinese society developed a high-consumerist culture. It prompted the commercial investment in company image, which lead to retail signage, trademark protection and sophisticated symbolic brand concepts.

In both the East and the West, as commerce and consumerism rapidly grew, signage became more of an artform to gain people’s attention over the competition. Art and signs merged into one as vendors became ever more creative with their sign design. Hence, the word sign in design. Businesses and artisans alike began to realize the power creativity has in attracting the customer. Such a concept still resonates more than ever today, with companies attempting to have their brand stand out from the internet crowd.

As commercial signage took off around Europe, it was only a matter of time before regulation came into play.

History of signage
Vintage White Rabbit Tavern Sign

The regulation of signs

Back about alcohol, during the medieval period (14th century) English law required that innkeepers and landlords’ erect signs outside their premises. The legislation was like an ancient-day liquor licence which stated: “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”

This practice of using signs spread to other types of commercial establishments throughout the Middle Ages with similar legislation enacted in Europe. In 1567 and 1577, France compelled innkeepers and tavern-keepers to erect signs for similar purposes.

By the 17th century, English laws required that every artisan or merchant display a sign representing their products and services provided.

Examples of symbols identifying signage include:

  • Bible symbolized a bookseller
  • Shoe was the symbol for shoemakers
  • Key symbolized a locksmith

These signs were made of everyday materials such as wood, wrought iron, porcelain, and textiles. They became artistic with complex drawings, vibrant colours and some even comical.

As a result, signs became more elaborate as traders began to experiment to differentiate themselves. Some began to adapt the coats of arms or badges of noble families or the Red Lion and the Green Dragon to attract customers. With the posts or metal, these signs support protruding from the buildings from which the signs hung over the street were often elaborately worked. Such beautiful examples of wrought-iron supports can still be seen across England and continental Europe today.

These types of signs were not only reserved for the Inn’s. High-end artisans, craftsmen and workshops created their own symbols to display, easily identifiable among their customers. You could say this was the birth of branding or the logo.

However, this large and heavy signage only brought a new kind of regulation as they presented hazards and, no doubt, tragic accidents followed. As cities populations grew, such hanging signs became a danger. Inner-city laneways were small and crowded with vendors, people, Horse, and carriage. Local governments brought in laws to control the placement and the size of signs. The signs became such a hazard that in the 1700’s, both Paris and London introduced laws to force the removal of signs altogether or fixed flat against the wall.

In London, Charles II demanded no outdoor sign should hang across streets or pedestrian walkways. It is incredible to think that his actions would culminate in developing outdoor signs as we know them today.

The signage industry today

From the earliest ivory vine leaves of Ancient Rome and all the way to the high-tech neon lights of Las Vegas, signs have always been symbols of economic activity. All businesses need a way to promote, advertise and market their brand, products, and services to the public. According to Global News Wire:

The global digital signage market size is estimated to be USD 16.3 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach 27.8 billion by 2026.

Signage is clearly here to stay. In fact, thanks to the advancements in technology that continuously shape the industry, this figure will only rise, especially as more and more business owners understand the importance of having a great outdoor presence.

The history of signs

Ipswich and Brisbane Custom Signs

Here at Blue Black White Signs, we are more than just a Ipswich and Brisbane signage company. We are a full-service interactive visual graphic business. We collaborate with small businesses, large corporate companies and residential to translate mission and philosophy into visual language and art that resonates across all media.

Some of Ipswich and Brisbane custom signs include:

  • Acrylic signs
  • Illuminated signs
  • Print signs
  • Digital signs
  • Neon light signs
  • Wall art
  • Canvas prints
  • Photography
  • 3D signs and wall art
  • Wallpaper graphics
  • Hand-painted signage

To learn more about what we do and can do for your business and brand, feel free to reach out to us for a friendly and professional service anytime.

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