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History of Signage

Signs have been a fundamental element in trade and have been around since human beings first began expressing themselves by drawing in caves. When thinking of the history of signs, few of us contemplate its presence in the ancient world however; in reality they were a huge part of human communication.

The first known use of signs was during the Palaeolithic age, around 18,000 BC, where signs were not only used to communicate, but were also ritualistic and spiritual in nature symbolism. The word ‘sign’ derives from the ancient Latin ‘signum’ and it means mark or token. The Romans were the first to recognise how valuable signs are and they introduced the first road sign system to indicate distances and direction.

After the dark ages there was a dramatic increase in commerce, trade and wealth, and this created increasingly artistic forms of trade signs. There was competition to see who could create the most elaborate signs. The use of gilding, ornamental iron, bright paint and carvings became increasingly popular. During the industrial revolution the invention of motor cars meant that road signage became even more important for maintaining the safety of people.

From a historical perspective, the signs that get the most attention are the Pub and Inn signs found in England, Europe and North America. They became a method of advertising in 1393 when King Richard II passed an act stating that all alehouses must post a sign. This is because the pubs were encouraged to identify themselves to the official ale tasters rather than just to promote their establishments to the public. The practice caught on and the result was highly creative and unusual signs, with shop keepers ensuring that their names were above the door of business for promotional purposes.

The production of newspapers, flyers and catalogues occurred during the mid 1800’s. This coincided with the invention of gas lighting and electric bulbs creating a new technology. In 1929 an American car salesman ordered the first neon sign. This was made with the newly invented neon tube, which could bend into countless shapes and came in many colours. The success of neon lights soon spread across the continent and the rest of the world.

Before and after World War II the quality of plastics and man-made fibres improved making it simple to create mass-produced signage. More developments such as LED lighting allowed signs to change their messages such as ‘road closed’, ‘road open’ and indicating the traffic ahead, making it a valuable tool in road safety as well as a convenience to the public.

Due to the plummeting costs of LCD and plasma TV technology, another revolution in signage is commencing. New digital signage using plasma and LCD are spreading worldwide and we are seeing the growth of outdoor digital signage. This is because development in technology is making it possible for these signs to be waterproof and well protected. If continuation of this current trend occurs, then it is likely that previous signage innovations mainly neon and LED will be replaced by digital signage.

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