Say it With a Sign: The History of Signage
The need to advertise a product or service has been around for thousands of years. So long, we can trace the use of signs communicating a good or service back to the cavemen. Basically, advertising through the use of signage has been around as long as the early humans, who first discovered how to communicate things through writing. This early form of advertising is much different than thousands and thousands of years ago, but the principle is the same. The cavemen needed to advertise something for sale (or trade) just as much as business owners need to advertise their services. What’s the common thread? Let’s take a step back in history and explore the use of advertising with signage.
Symbols and Signs
The earliest documented us of signs can be traced all the way back to the Paleolithic Age, around 18,000 BC. This age is characterized as a prehistoric period of human history. Early humans used primitive tools as well as primitive artwork to create and communicate. It’s difficult to know exactly what early humans were trying to communicate from these crude remains of crave paintings, but we do know they were a major form of communication. From illustrations of wildlife, rituals, and portraits, we know they were instrumental in communication between tribes. It only makes sense to believe drawings of animals, food, or goods were used as an advertisement of trade. The cavemen may have drawn symbols on the outside and inside of their caves advertising skills and goods they were willing to trade with other’s in their tribes. Advertising services was born!
If we move forward in time, we can find solid examples of advertising in the form of a town “crier”. These criers would stand at the gates to a city or in the city square to verbally advertise the goods their master had for sale that day. Though this form of advertising didn’t include signage, this is one of the earliest forms we can find of effective advertising tactics. Later, when merchants began to have a fixed place in town, like a marketplace or trade center, concrete forms of advertising began to pop up. Carvings in brick and stone advertising goods for sale can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. From 3000 BC onward, signs became commonplace, as trade centers of surrounding areas were established. Trade became a booming part of the ancient world, and the marketplaces of many major towns held wealth and power in the ancient world. These symbols evolved into signs to lead the consumer to the appropriate vendor’s stall, increasing trade and competition in advertising.
The Dark Ages saw a stall in signs and trade advertising. Since much of the focus in this time was survival, many people did not utilize the ancient trade routes as frequently. When the Roman Empire fell, a major source of trade fell as well. The interconnectedness of the Roman Empire allowed merchants to travel great distances to trade their goods in open-air marketplaces. A period of recovery followed, and trade was born anew. During the Dark Ages, trade was replaced with philanthropy, charity, and support of local community - less importance was put on travel for trading. The fall of the Roman rule forced trade and many other things to become extremely localized. Due to the decline in large trade centers and basic communication, there are not a lot of written records from the Dark Ages – especially about the state of advertising.
After the Dark Ages, people began to gain more wealth and stability. With a return to large cities and kingdoms, trade and advertising came back with a new look. Trading goods was now about outshining your competitors with more artistic and elaborate signs. Merchants would use bright paint, ornamental iron, and elaborate carvings in an effort to impress and draw in more consumers. In fact, in the 1700’s the first regulations were put on signs in an effort to protect the public from low-hanging, overly ornate signs. Further into history, the 1800’s saw a true boom in advertising and signage. With the birth of printed signs, newspapers, and fliers, advertising became as far-reaching as the modernized forms of trade and selling.
From what we know, using signs to advertise goods or services has been around as long as we have. From the cavemen to our more modern Victorian counterparts, the need to show people what you had to offer hasn’t gone away. Signs may have evolved from mere cave paintings to vinyl banners and illuminated signs, but the purpose remains the same. If you have a business, you need a great way to advertise; and using a sign is a great place to start!