The Interesting History of Signage

July 4, 2012 by  Filed under: Advertising 

Although the word signage can be traced back to the French word enseigne, the meaning has changed somewhat over the past few centuries. This is because the modern French meaning of enseigne can be translated into flag or banner. These are not the signage types that are discussed in this article. This article discusses the history of the painted and sometimes carved advertisements that started to become predominant during the Middle Ages to advertise for shops, inns or taverns.

The First Signage Appeared More than 2000 Years Ago

Both the ancient Egyptians and Romans, as well as sometimes the Greeks, were known to have used signage to advertise building that offered certain services. There are still many well preserved historical examples of Roman signs, including signs that use an image of a bush to indicate a tavern or drinking establishment and signs that use the image of 3 balls to indicate the ancient equivalent of a pawnbroker. Some of these signs that can be traced back to the ancient Mediterranean have evolved over time to become the modern trademarks of companies and businesses still in existence today.

Religious Signage

Religious signage was also used by certain religious groups of various origin. This included first the fish and then the cross of Christianity, the Crescent and the Star of Islam and even the sun and the moon for certain Pagan religions.

The First Legislated Signage

In 1389 King Richard III of England was the first person to introduce laws that compelled British landlords to erect signs outside their drinking establishments. This legislation was put into place so that inspectors could easily identify where ale was sold so that the quality of said ale could be checked. This was because at this time the quality of drinking water was not very good and ale was the usual replacement.

Trade Signage

In large towns and cities where a number of people practiced the same or similar trade it became important to be able to differentiate between tradesmen. Because of this a variety of signage image devices came into being such as a rooster used to indicate the surname Cox, this was known as a rebus.

British Pub Signage

A law compelling publicans to exhibit a sign was introduced as early as the 14th century (see legislated signage above). Because these signs were used to attract peoples attention they became elaborate over time and often included parts of local nobilities coat of arms, This gave rise to names such a The Green Dragon or the Stags Head.

The Use of Signage is Curtailed

Signage was a prominent feature on the streets of London up until 1762, at which time it was decreed that the amount of signage had become both a nuisance and a danger in the narrow ally ways of the city. Laws were therefore introduced to limit there usage.

The Most Well Known Modern Signage

There are two well known versions of modern signage that can be found in two of the worlds greatest cities, one in London at Piccadilly Circus and the other at Times Square, New York. The signage in New York already has a history of more than 100 years.

The author is a digital printing and signage specialist who has worked in the Cape Town Printing industry for over a decade.

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