Signs of the Times: A Brief History of Signages

Whenever we think of business signs, it’s probably hard to imagine anything that looks different from what we see everywhere today. But before diving into the history of signs, it’s important to understand what signage means.

Merriam-Webster defines signage as “a visual graphic display used to identify or advertise a place of business or a product.” Humans have been creating and using signs to advertise and visually identify their business for as long as the existence of trade and commerce. Using the materials and tools available at a particular time – stone, terracotta, wood, wrought iron, neon, plastic – people have always found the need to create and display signs to communicate about their products and services to the public.

Whether you’re working in the signage industry, a student learning about sign design and the history of signs, or simply curious about the origins and evolution of signage through the ages, you’ll surely find this historical infographic below handy, informative, and visually engaging. Read on and take a walk through signage history with us.

signage history infographics
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Signage Through the Ages: A Timeline Infographic

Stone Age

Paleolithic Era (18,000 BC)

Early humans drew symbols on cave walls to visually communicate they had products to trade or barter with others. Some experts call this symbolic advertising and records indicate the earliest signs date back 40,000 to 45,000 years, suggesting symbolic graphics were painted on cave walls to advertise commodities to other tribes (e.g., hunted wild animals, pots, and arrows).

Early Civilization

Ancient Egypt, Greece, Roman Empire (800–500 BC)

Craftspeople in Ancient Egypt painted and carved symbols on terracotta, stone, brick, and wood to advertise their goods and services and differentiate themselves from other trades. These symbols were usually found in marketplaces, temples or buildings of worship, and other public centers, which were later discovered in the ruins of Pompeii and other cities. Ancient Greeks used logos in their signs to communicate to illiterate citizens. Many of these symbols, such as the staff of Hermes for Health and Medicine and the goddess Demeter for Grain and Bread, are still seen today. Street signs were widely used in the Roman Empire, often made from wood, brick, stone, and marble.

Medieval Europe

Pre-19th Century (1000 AD–1700)

This period of economic and cultural revival spurred by new trade expeditions saw a golden age for advertising, signages, and the beginnings of business logos as artisan workshops and craftspeople began using their own identifiable symbols to differentiate themselves to customers.

Symbols were more common than letters as the majority of the population did not know how to read. These all spawned the use of emblems mounted on poles and hanging boards.

In 1389, England’s King Richard III mandated that all taverns and ale houses in the country should display outdoor signs so the monarch could easily locate them for quality testing. Public houses, or pubs, typically still use some of the earliest sign graphics from the mid-15th century.

The origin of the barber pole dates back to the 1100s, when surgeries were performed in barber shops, and the bloody red flag around a pole marked the designated venues for this profession.

Big Towns, Larger Outdoor Signs (1700)

As cities and populations grew, so did trade and outdoor signage. English laws required innkeepers, tavern owners, landlords, and all other establishments to put up signs outside the premises. These were made with carved wood, ornamental wrought iron, and bright paint.

This was also the beginning of illuminated signs using candles before the invention of electricity.

By the 18th century, outdoor signs grew larger and heavier than ever, weighing over 100 pounds and dangling high above the ground—and resulting in frequent tragic accidents. King Charles II banned hanging outdoor signs and implemented signage regulations. This was the beginning of the use of painted storefront signs outside establishments.

Modern History

Large Format Signs (1800–1900)

The evolution of businesses into corporations and empires coincided with the development of commercial printing and the revolution of sign design into an art form. As companies grew, so did the demand for bigger signs to stand out and grab the attention of mass consumers. Font design and typography were significant signage design. By 1900, the first twenty-four sheet billboard was born, changing roadside signage forever.

Gas & Electric Signs (1900–1930)

The innovation of gas and electric power lighting up streets and public areas at night had been a game-changer for both public activities and outdoor signage. This meant more people could walk and spend time outside at night and business establishments could advertise their products and services all night long. The result: bigger, brighter signs, cities that would never sleep, and the rapid rise of capitalism.

The First Neon Sign was gas powered, invented in France in 1910 and erected in Los Angeles in 1915.

Porcelain Signs (or enamel signs) were initially born in Germany in the 1890s and became widely used to promote brands and products in US stores by the 1900s. Produced through silkscreen and lithographic printing, these graphical signs would represent the era of commercial printing and mass production by the 1930s.

Standard Highway Signs were initially “paint dipped” so they could be made in large quantities. The standard sign sizes we know today originated from the earlier machines that could only stamp out metal signs at 24”.

Plastic, Vinyl, Large Format Printing (1940–1990)

After WWII, there was a need for signages that were incredibly cheap and fast to make in high volume. These were the early water-resistant banners and inflatable signs that are typical today.

  • Lightweight and durable adhesive vinyl film was first used in 1958.
  • The introduction of digital vinyl cutting machines in the 1980s allowed fast and seamless cutting of complex logos and text that could be applied directly on walls and windows.
  • Neon and fluorescent lights were used to create acrylic signs, banners, flags, and A-Frame signs.

Digital Technology

Signs Created on a Computer (1990–present)

The rise of large format printing and digital technology made sign production even faster and easier than ever before. Various sign printing techniques and technologies in the early 2000s, such as industrial UV printing and dye sublimation, would later pave the way for digital sign and graphics techniques for digital output devices.

The Future of Signages

Even with the advancement of digital marketing and advertising, sign printing is still crucial and effective for any industry – with no sign of fading out anytime soon. Looking back on the history of signs may illustrate how far we’ve come since humans first embedded symbols on stone and wood, yet the necessity remains the same today. For as long as people engage in trade and commerce, there will always be a need to create business signs to advertise and communicate to potential and existing customers.

Nowadays, custom sign printing is not even just for business purposes alone. More than ever before, people also print signs for wayfinding, aesthetic decorative purposes, and spreading a message – from social distancing floor graphics, wall decals, tablecloths, photo backdrops, parking signs, to graduation and political signs.

Thinking of creating a sign to promote your business or announcement? eSigns is here to help. Check out our wide selection of highly durable and affordable signage solutions for every need. Order today and enjoy free shipping on orders over $75.