Mar 27

A Brief History of the Sign Industry

From the earliest of times, signs have been central to trade, industry and commerce, evolving from crude etchings that told stories, to much shorter forms that signified a place or the purpose of an establishment. While technology has brought in the “information age” and with it a shift away from “brick and mortar” establishments and towards virtual ones, the sign, physical or digital, and its importance for industry, remains.

The early phase of signage and advertising

Where did signage begin? Historians speculate that the earliest signs were drawings etched on cave walls of tribal artisans to attract business. So for example, someone making bows or utensils could’ve created a visual cue – a sign – on their cave to draw customers, so historians believe. Competition between tribes for similar goods and services could’ve led to the next step in signage – attracting long-distance customers.

Stone and bricks dating back as early as 3000 B.C.E. show evidence of being used to advertise a place of business, with the bush made of ivy and vine leaves in ancient Rome used to mark a tavern being one of the most conspicuous examples (Source: “A Brief History of the Sign Industry”, American Sign Museum).

The end of the Dark Ages was an expansive period for sign arts, as artistic expression manifesting in innovative design and color schemes, such as elaborate carvings, gilt and paints. The visible (and external) banner, generally an insignia, which hung outside a merchant’s place of business and/or production, is the dominant form of advertising, at this point. Thus, the business sign was born. Signage begins to adopt uniform symbols, i.e., the key for a locksmith, mortar and pestle to signify an apothecary, or the bible to denote a bookseller, throughout the 14th to 18th centuries, in England.

Competition again provided the impetus for innovations in signage, as competing vendors invested in increasingly elaborate signs and supporting posts to distinguish their business from their competitors. This would eventually culminate in the use of names of the actual business owners, in addition to symbols, to identify one merchant over another with similar wares.

19th to the Present

Signs became visible at night with the 1840 gas-lit display created for the P.T. Barnum Museum. Theater marquees, drug and other retail stores also used them. During the International Electrical Exposition in January, 1882, the world saw its first electrical sign in London, England. A 50 ft. by 80 ft. electric sign, the largest of its kind, was displayed in New York City, in 1891, ushering in nighttime display advertising.

At the start of the 20th century, Federal Electric Company, the first electric sign company, sang the praises of electric sign advertising, which in their words was a “unique means of arousing interest in any kind of merchandising”, “the cheapest and most efficient means of advertising,” and capable of reaching customers that would otherwise be unreachable. The same can be said today.


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