A Brief History of Signs

A Brief History of Signs - 18th century William Hogarth painting showing lots of people  gathered outside a pub sitting below a large traditional hanging pub sign

William Hogarth painting showing an 18th century pub sign


In today’s society we rely on signs to navigate through daily life. Whether we use them for directions or to order a coffee, we’d be lost without them. We’re not the only ones who rely on signs though, as signage has been a popular choice of communication for thousands of years now.

Ancient Rome

The use of commercial signage can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome, whereby signs were most commonly used for shop fronts. The signs were usually made from stone and had symbols carved into them. Carving symbols into stone rather than text was popular as a large proportion of civilization was unable to read.

Medieval England and Pubs

The Medieval period was a huge turning point for signage in England. In 1389, King Richard II told landlords they must hang signs outside of their pubs otherwise “he shall forfeit his ale”. During Medieval times, water wasn’t always safe to drink, so ale was the alternative. Having signs outside pubs let Ale Tasters (a position which has been recently revived!) know the quality of the ale inside.

It is important to remember a lot of people were still illiterate during this time, so like ancient Rome, pictures and symbols were commonly used on signs. The majority of pub names were introduced in later years, usually being derived from the sign illustration.

It was popular to name English pubs after monarchs and battles, which is why there were (and still are) so many pubs with the same name. However, a lot of pubs opted for more weird and wonderful names in order to stand out amongst their competitors- naming a pub something unusual is still very popular today. There is even a book available which includes the origins of hundreds of pub names in the UK.

Signs were prominent features of the streets of London, however they quickly became dangerous due to busy streets and the size of the signs. In the mid-1700s, laws were introduced to make business owners remove their hanging sign boards or have them fixed flat to the wall.

Electrical Advancements

Technology started to advance more once the 1800s hit, and so did the signage. Following the invention of the electric light bulb and the neon tube, signs took on a new lease of life as they were able to include illumination.

The first sign using incandescent light bulbs was made in 1882 and was displayed at International Electrical Exposition. Signs using light bulbs are still popular today, although they’re a lot more energy efficient and safer than their original counterparts.

It is generally agreed that the first commercial neon sign was introduced in 1910 by Georges Claude at the Paris Motor Show. Everybody was in awe of the neon lights because of their colours and brightness. Neon signs are as popular as ever today, commonly being seen in bars and restaurants who are open late at night.

Signage Today

Signage has dramatically developed over the years, and the chances are if you have an idea for signage in your head then it can be made! Thanks to technology, signage can be made in just about in shape, colour and size. Things haven’t changed much from the 1700s as signage is still used to stand out from competitors. A quality sign can help increase your customers- after all, who doesn’t love a good looking sign? You can see some of our quality work here to help inspire you.

Contact Us

If you’re interested in getting some signage created for your business, you can reach us via the contact form on our website. Alternatively you can ring us on 01914782200 or e-mail us directly at info@jonsigns.co.uk. We look forward to hearing from you and helping you on your signage journey!