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A History of Signs and Printing - Part 1

History of Sign Makers

If you’re like most people, you simply accept that sign makers are all about guide displays and printing, and that’s about it.

When you look around, or drive around, if you live in most industrialized countries on the planet, your world is full of signs. I’m going to give you a brief history so you’ll know, whether you wanted to know or not.

Where Sign Making, Printing and Sign Makers Came From – A Short History

early medieval signage

Stone Age

In the Stone Age, Grog and his wife, Groggette, sent a smoke signal invitation to Thor and his wife, Thorina, to come over for a mastodon barbecue. However, they never showed up because, legend has it, they got lost. So, they re-sent the invite the next weekend, but this time made some crude display markers in the forest, and the Thor’s were able to come over for some delicious barbecued mastodon after all.

OK…I kinda just made that up, but it’s not too far from the truth. Early signs included piles of stones or sticks pointing in a direction that one wanted someone to go…of course, the range of travel was likely somewhat smaller before cars (B.C.), so most people probably didn’t need them for most things ‘cuz they simply just knew where things were.

classic tavern signs

Early Civilization

As people became civilized and began to travel via trade routes, the Egyptians were among the earliest civilizations to use road markers. The Greeks and Romans carried on the tradition, with the Romans making what we might consider the first modern ones of terra cotta. Christians were one of the first cults to use them, adopting the fish and the cross as a guide of where their churches were, although pagan religions had long used idols as symbols of their temples as well.

Late in the 14th Century, King Richard III legislated that all nobility must post their lands with their family name or coat of arms, and that all taverns must clearly be marked as ale houses. This was done most likely to be able to collect taxes on booze and persons who actually had money, something which was done away with during the American Revolution, but reinstated soon after.

metal copper and iron hang signsEarly sign displays within towns had symbols indicating what a shop might produce or what service was performed. A bush was an early symbol of a tavern, but as towns grew and there might be several taverns, distinction had to be made by the owners, so you might see a tavern with the symbol of a dragon or a rooster (sorry tavern owner, but a dragon seems just a tad more powerful than a rooster!) to signal ownership of the tavern.

So a conversation might go something like this…”Hi Cotswold…let’s go grab a beer at the Rooster Tavern.” Nah,” says Cotswold to Harald, “I prefer the Blue Dragon, it’s more manly sounding.” “I don’t care about that,” retorts Harald, “I’m your wife!”

16th and 17th Century

By the 16th and 17th century A.D., most cities were full of businesses trying to attract customers to their store, and the signage became more elaborate. It was during these years that sign makers established their profession, and they’ve been broke ever since. During this time, these graphic designs probably were the most artistic of any time in recorded history, and often beautiful wrought-iron hangers displayed like this one.

However, some displays got too big, and where the streets were narrow, speeding wagons would sometimes collide their driver’s head on the over-sized signage, especially Cotswold and Harald who were not paying very close attention after downing a few at the Rooster Tavern (she won the argument). It was in these times that the most enterprising government officials learned the truth about them- that you could both regulate the size and tax them at the same time!

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Barry K. Brown

Barry Brown has been in the Sign, Banner, Decal and Display Business for over 20 years. It isn't what he thought he'd do with his life, but he says he knows too much now to do anything else!

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