The history of commercial signage can be traced back to antiquity. Given below is the chronicle of commercial signs right from their inception in the ancient ages to their evolution in the modern times.
In ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used signage for commercial purposes. Traces of Roman signboards made from wood or terracotta, or even whitewashed walls containing advertisements, can be found to this date.
- Recent research on the history of signage has suggested that signage was in rampant use in the Chinese civilization as well. Artifacts consisting of copper printing plates used to print posters which contained messages for the public have been uncovered.
- The Medieval Ages saw the increasing importance of signage in certain countries such as England. As early as the 14th century, King Richard II of England legislated the use of signboards, especially outside public houses in order to facilitate the quality checking of the ale being served. This practice of using signage was extended to other commercial products, and its use began to spread across the European continent, as in the case of France, where edicts instructing erection of signboards outside inns and taverns were issued.
- The signs produced by the 15th century were heavily based on pictures since the larger part of the population was illiterate. Consequently, as a tradition, signs continued to be highly graphic and visually appealing throughout their course of usage. It was only at a much later stage that names or written alphabets began to be incorporated into signs.
- Around the 16th and 17th century, the Coat of Arms or Badges of noble families began to be used by manufacturers for endorsement. Consequently, signs such as the Red Lion or the Green Dragon became popular, especially as pub signs. But with the turn of the century, however, there seemed to be a rise in the number of fraudulent royal endorsements. Consequently, several rules restricting the display of royal arms as signage came into being.
- The 18th century witnessed the production of elaborately worked and beautifully decorated wrought iron signboards which were gracefully swung over inns, taverns or shops. However, these large overhanging signs soon became a cause of potential danger to the people, and eventually, laws asking signboards to be fixed against the walls came into existence.
- The 19th century saw the rise of artists such as the Austro-Hungarian painter, Demeter Laccataris who devoted themselves to the painting of signboards. By this time, the use of signs had become much more organized and conventionalized. Coffee houses, chemists’ corners, and doctors’ chambers had a particular set pattern in their signage, some of which exist even to this date.
- It was only in the twentieth century that exterior signage was full fledged used for commercial purposes. The first of these called Spectaculars which was put into use in Manhattan widely grew in popularity. By 1913, the use of commercial signage had become so rampant that the night skies were lit by the blaze of these signboards.
- In the 1920s, the use of the newly discovered neon boards was incorporated into the commercial spheres. Their visibility and flexibility made them the perfect choice for signage. By the end of the decade, neon lights had become an indispensable part of signs.
This is how the modern signs used for commercial purposes came into being and evolved over the ages.