History of Signs

Cave PaintingsThere are few commercial activities that have been in use longer than the advertising sign.It has been a fundamental element in trade, commerce, and industry, from the ancient world to the present.

Few of us may think of the ancient world when thinking of the history of signs but our development in culture and communication made the use of symbolism an ideal format for this purpose.

Cliff Carvings - click to enlargeSymbolism has been a part of human culture since artistic expression first began.The Paleolithic Age around 18,000 BC, has given us hundreds of examples in the form of cave paintings. These are primarily thought to be ritualistic in nature but they illustrate how early symbolism became important not only for artistic expression but for human communication.

These cliff carvings in a remote area of Latvia are dated around the 13th Century. They are most likely ritualistic in nature as well.

Pictograph WritingIt is interesting to look at ancient pictograph writing and see how the same symbols are found throughout the world, many still in use today.


The earliest verifiable form of advertising was the “crier” or “barker”. He would announce his masters wares for sale in the market square or at the gates of the city. When fixed locations for trade became more common, the displaying of symbols or trade signs to draw the consumer began to be more commonplace. Examples of carvings in stone and brick have been found in Greek, Roman and Egyptian cities dating from about 3000 BC onward.

Wall PaintingOne of the best resources for examples of ancient daily life can be found in Pompeii.Sealed for thousands of years in ash from the volcanic eruption of Mt Vesuvius, the frescoes, mosaics, engravings, glasswork, and even food have been preserved for us to study and get a real sense of commerce in the ancient world.

This wall painting shows a baker distributing his loaves of bread; clearly indicating what type of product could be purchased from the shop inside the building.

Graffiti has been found outside various temples, suggesting that temporary stalls for selling bread and other products were often used. Graffiti outside the Temple of Apollo reads 'Verecunnus libarius hic' and 'Pudens libarius', which can be roughly translated to 'Verecunnus and Pudens sell sacrificial bread here'.

Ornate Building SignAfter the Dark Ages, the increase in trade, commerce and wealth encouraged increasingly elaborate and artistic forms of trade signs. The use of carvings, bright paint, ornamental iron and even gilding encouraged competition between merchants to see who could create the most elaborate signs. In the early 1700's the very first sign regulations were put in place to protect the public from large signs hanging too far into the narrow streets.

The Swan Tavern Sign - click to enlargeThe signs that get the most attention from a historical perspective are the beloved Pub and Inn signs found in England, Europe and North America.Pub signs became a method of advertising after King Richard II passed an Act in 1393 that required all alehouses to post a sign. This was to identify themselves to the official ale tasters rather than to promote their establishments to the public, but the practice caught on. The result was signs that were highly creative and unusual, even by today's standards.

The true era of modern advertising began with the explosion of newspapers, flyers and catalogues of the mid-1800's. At the same time, the use of gas lighting, then the invention of the electric bulb, created a whole new technology in signage. The invention of the neon tube, which could bend into countless shapes and came in many colors, was another explosive invention. Electronic illuminated signs have been a distinctly American industry ever since.

Polly Gas by Evans Sign Co.The improvement of plastics before and after World War II expanded its usage for advertising signs, making it easy to create both unique and mass-produced products. Changable copy signs were another useful advertising and marketing creation that has expanded into the use of LED's and programmable messages used widely today.

One thing is clear. The use of symbols in daily human life is as strong now as it was so many generations ago. Symbolism transcends cultural boundaries, encourages communication and cooperation, and will continue to evolve along with us.