When did signs and signage begin? Well with all probability it has evolved since time began. We know for instance that all sorts of animals leave signs. These are primarily smell signs by marking their territory. These later became road signs as you can read below.
The Ancient History of Signage
The Latin word for Sign is Nota, Nota is defined as: mark, token, note, sign.
The French enseigne indicates its essential connection with what is known in English as a flag, and in France, banners not infrequently took the place of signs or sign boards in the Middle Ages. Signs, however, are best known in the form of painted or carved advertisements for shops, inns, etc. They are one of various emblematic methods used from time immemorial for publicly calling attention to the place to which they refer.
The ancient Egyptians and Romans were known to use signs. In ancient Rome, signboards were usually made from stone or terracotta, and Greeks are known to have used signs also. Many Roman examples are preserved, among them the widely-recognized bush to indicate a tavern, from which is derived the proverb "Good wine needs no bush". In some cases, such as the bush, or the three balls of pawnbrokers, certain signs became identified with certain trades and some of these later evolved into trademarks. Other signs can be grouped according to their various origins. Thus, at an early period, the cross or other sign of a religious character was used to attract Christians, whereas the sign of the sun or the moon would serve the same purpose for pagans.
History of Signage in England
In 1389, King Richard II of England compelled landlords to erect signs outside their premises. The legislation stated "Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale. This was in order make them easily visible to passing inspectors of the quality of the ale they provided (during this period, drinking water was not always good to drink and ale was the usual replacement). 1393 saw the first prosecution of a publican for not displaying a sign. In France edicts were directed to the same end in 1567 and 1577.
Later, the adaptation of the coats of arms or badges of noble families became common. These would be described by the people without consideration of the language of heraldry, and thus such signs as the Red Lion, the Green Dragon, etc., have become familiar, especially as pub signs.
Large towns where many practiced the same trade, simple signs of a trade signs did not provide sufficient distinction. Thus a variety of devices came into existence; sometimes the trader used a rebus on his own name (e.g. two cocks for the name of Cox); sometimes he adopted a figure of an animal or other object, or portrait of a well-known person, which he considered likely to attract attention. Other signs used the common association of two heterogeneous objects, which (apart from those representing a rebus) were in some cases merely a whimsical combination, but in others arose from a popular misconception of the sign itself (e.g. the combination of the leg and star may have originated in a representation of the insignia of the garter), or from corruption in popular speech (e.g. the combination goat and compasses is said by some to be a corruption of God encompasses).
Standing out to customers is still an essential consideration for modern high street establishments, with many hours of thought and effort put into shop facias to lure in new customers.
Introduction of Commercial Signs
Since the object of sign boards was to attract the public, they were often of an elaborate character. Not only were the signs themselves large and sometimes of great artistic merit (especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they reached their greatest vogue) but the posts or metal supports protruding from the houses over the street, from which the signs were swung, were often elaborately worked, and many beautiful examples of wrought-iron supports survive both in England and continental Europe.
The signs were a prominent feature of the streets of London at this period. But here and in other large towns they became a danger and a nuisance in the narrow ways. Already in 1669 a royal order had been directed in France against the excessive size of sign boards and their projection too far over the streets. In Paris in 1761 and in London about 1762-1773, laws were introduced which gradually compelled sign boards to be removed or fixed flat against the wall, an early version of todays wall signs.
For the most part they only survived in connection with inns, for which some of the greatest artists of the time painted sign boards, usually representing the name of the inn. With the gradual abolition of sign boards, the numbering of houses began to be introduced in the early 18th century in London. It had been attempted in Paris as early as 1512, and had become almost universal by the close of the 18th century, though not enforced until 1805. Modern directory boards are now a solution for finding the correct address or business within a shared building, as numbering is often not sufficient and can be confusing.
Another important factor was that during the Middle Ages a large percentage of the population would have been illiterate and so pictures were more useful than words as a means of identifying a public house. For this reason there was often no reason to write the establishment's name on the sign and inns opened without a formal written name—the name being derived later from the illustration on the public house's sign. In this sense, a pub sign can be thought of as an early example of visual branding, much like wall signs or banners and posters used today.
During the 19th century, some artists specialized in the painting of signboards, such as the Austro-Hungarian artist Demeter Laccataris. Pending this development, houses which carried on trade at night (e.g. coffee houses, brothels, etc.) had various specific arrangements of lights, and these still survive to some extent, as in the case of doctors dispensaries and chemists shops.
With a 100+ year history, one of the best known signs in the world is the Times Square Ball, located at One Times Square, New York City. It has been featured in countless movies and is used for the New Year's Eve ball-drop ceremonies.
What About the History of Road Signage?
Road signs have been around for thousands of years. From the very first primitive path cut through the forest by caveman, man has been marking roads to simplify navigation and find his way. During the great days of the Roman Empire, columns made of stone were put up to show the distance from that point on the road to the city of Rome. These columns were some of the first road signs used that actually showed how far until the destination, in this case Rome. During the Middle Ages, the time of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table, road signs were used at intersections of roads. These were used for more than one direction, pointing to towns or cities along more than one road at the intersection.
Up until the automobile was created in the late eighteen hundreds, traffic signs were not considered very important to most. Once the car was invented it became important for roads and towns to be marked, allowing travellers to find their way. In the year 1908, there was an important meeting in the city of Rome that discussed regulating traffic signs. This meeting was called the International Road Congress, and road signs were just one of the things that were discussed here.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, road signs were made from wood and used the dull lead based paint that was available then. With the advancement of newer technology, metal became available in place of wood, creating signs that were more durable. The paint used on the road signs was also changed, first to paint with no lead, and then to reflective paint that greatly increases night time visibility.
Modern Road Signage
Currently, road markers include several different mediums. There are the usual metal and paint signs, that say things like stop, yield, lane closes, the speed limit, and more. But in the modern world there are also high tech signs, like road beacon systems and signs that talk. Road beacon systems use electronic sign boards to post information capable of changing, such as construction progress or accident ahead. These road signs make it very easy to disperse the latest information on a board visible to all motorists.
There is a lot of uniformity in traffic signs the world over. The shape and colour of many can be translated no matter what country you are in or what language the writing is in. Stop signs, for instance, have the same pentagon shape and red colour in almost every country in the world, making it recognizable even to foreigners in every country. Some road markers simply identify the road, route, or highway you are driving on, and these signs are responsible for the ease in navigation most motorists have in finding their way from point A to point B. Road signs have a long history that dates back millennium, and these have been improved over the years and have evolved into the complex range of road signs that are available on modern roads.
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