Try to count the number of times you have used a sign today: maybe you used one for directions to the interstate, thought, “Oh, that’s where that new restaurant is!”, found the vegetable aisle at the grocery store, or merged to the left lane to avoid driving through a construction zone. It’s hard to tally, right? While signs are an integral part of our day, we hardly take note of their existence. As Slate of 2010 puts it, “They’re the most useful thing you pay no attention to.”
The importance of signage is encompassed in its vast historical prevalence. Four score and seven years ago… Okay, so it’s been much longer than that. Signs have been guiding us for thousands upon thousands of years, competing with few products for that title. Signage has been and will continue to be a fundamental factor in everything from advertising and marketing, direction, and even the economy, as signs hold the capacity to identify a business as well as express a reason for its existence.
While today’s signs are quite different from those in our history books, certain core facets have endured. Since the earliest centuries, signage has reflected culture. Here’s a look at how both signage and culture have changed:
- 3000 B.C.
- Symbolic advertising: hieroglyphs were used by tribes for mutual protection or to indicate they had products to exchange like bows, arrows or utensils
- 3000 B.C. + 4,000 years
- Rudimentary tradesmen’s signs: the use of these signs in Egypt, Rome, and Greece at the place of business were the only important and effective advertising mediums. They were typically painted, carved in stone, or designed in terra cotta.
- 14th to 18th centuries
- Symbolic signs: Around the 17th century symbol signs were common, especially in Europe. Some of these symbols are now iconic associations that we know today, such as:
- Bible = bookseller
- Key = locksmith
- Mortar & pestle = apothecary
- Red & white striped pole = barber
- Mid 18th century
- Art influence: The spotlight fell on painting, architecture, and literature, and as such merchant signs experienced artistic influences. During this time, signs were a means of expression for artists, and included elaborate carvings, gilt, and paints.
- Signs might be accompanied by a name, but symbols remained important during this time because people couldn’t read.
- Merchants began to compete for business by using larger and larger signs, which marked the beginning of sign regulation to prevent injury to the heads of horsemen riding on the streets
- 19th & 20th Centuries
- Gas lighting: Illuminated signage was used for theater marquees, drug stores, retail stores until the electric lamp was instituted.
- Incandescent bulbs: These were the first electric signs!
- Neon tubes: 1898 Sir William Ramsay & William Travers discovered neon gas, and in 1902 the French scientist Georges Claude developed a method for liquefying neon gas, permitting for neon signage
- Fluorescent tubes: Further development by Erich Koch, a German inventor, enabled a multitude of colors beyond the standard red and blue for signage.
- Plastics: The development of plastics post war was incredibly influential on the signage industry as a durable, color-fast, and stable material.
- Today: The sign industry of today serves the same function to today’s industries as its ancient roots. Over the course of time signs have adapted to reflect changing culture, combining the practicality of business and environmental needs with creative design. As the sign industry has evolved over the course of time, it will continue to do so for the next era 🙂