All About Signs
This polychrome painting, of a "cow and a horse," is a paleolithic
cave painting from the caves at Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of France.
The paanTmng is dated at approximately 15,000 bce.
Petroglyphs are images incised in rock, usually by prehistoric, especially Neolithic, peoples. They were an important form of pre-writing symbols, used in communication from approximately 10,000 B.C.E. to modern times, depending on culture and location. Early written symbols were based on pictographs (pictures which resemble what they signify) and ideograms(symbols which represent ideas). They were used by the ancient Chinese culture
since around 5000 BC and began to develop into logographic writing systems around 2000 BC. Pictographs are still in use as the main
medium of written communication in some non-literate cultures in
Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Contemporary cultures also use
pictographs as a way to represent simple ideas.
When fixed locations for trade became common, the
displaying of symbols or trade signs to draw the consumer became
commonplace. Examples of carvings in stone and brick have been found in
Greek, Roman and Egyptian cities dating from about 3000 BC onward. One
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.
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'.
After 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
The 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.
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. Changeable copy signs were another useful advertising and marketing creation that has expanded into the use of LED's and programmable messages used widely today.