History of Commercial Signage

The history of signage dates back to when man first figured out a way to express himself artistically. From the symbolic cave paintings of early human existence to the modern digital city that is New York, signs and symbols have always been used to communicate feelings, capture moments or advertise goods and services. 

What we typically associate with modern signage could be traced back to around the time of the Greeks and Romans. Usually made of stone or terracotta, these signs used imagery more than text since many people were illiterate during this time.Early Christians used the cross to establish places to meet, while pagans used symbols like the sun, moon, rose, and thunder. 

After the Dark Ages ended and commerce expanded, the need for signs grew dramatically. In 1389, King Richard III of England passed a law that any establishment that sold ale must place a sign out in front of its building. At first, these “trade” signs were fairly need-based, but soon signs where showing up with logos that included lions, dragons, shields and other popular symbols of the day. In order to keep pace with competitors, businesses realized that their signs needed to become more catchy. 

As the population began to accumulate in cities, signs actually became a danger. Roads in urban areas were small and crowded with people, street vendors, animals, and carts. Ordinances were established to control the size and placement of signs. In the 1700’s, both London and Paris introduced laws that forced signs to be removed or fixed flat against the wall. 

It wasn’t until the 18th century that new technologies like gas lighting, the industrial printing press and electricity began to shape modern signage. It’s at this point that businesses and artisans had even more options when creating signs and they began to realize how creativity played a role in attracting customers. 

Several developments in the early 20th century provided the impetus for widespread commercial adoption of exterior signage.In the 1920s, the newly developed neon sign was introduced to the United States. Its flexibility and visibility led to the widespread commercial adoption and by the 1930s, neon signs were a standard feature of modern buildings all around the world.