The Origin of Signs

Imitation Antique Sign by LE Graphics, Hand painted and distressed for aged effect

Although no one can be absolutely sure, it is more than likely that the first signs used on a commercial basis were those advertising an alehouse as early as the fourteenth century BC. What is far more certain is that when the Romans came to Britain after AD43 they brought with them many of their customs including the tabernae or wine shops. The sign for the tabernae was a bundle of grapevine leaves hanging on a chain on the outside wall to signify that new wine had been delivered and was ready for sale.

The Romans also used the Chequers as a sign to signify that games like chess and draughts could be played at a taverna and the Chequers is still a popular sign today. And so it went on. Signs to signify the trade or service being offered were all in pictogram form in earlier times, partly because of a near total lack of literacy.

With regard to the alphabet itself, the 22 letter system was being used as early as 1200BC. It is remarkable to note that this has changed very little throughout the ages and the number of letters has never varied from the present count by more than half a dozen. Letter styles would now be counted in the thousands although there is still a fairly strict discipline among the knowledgeable students of graphics and the popular styles are repeated continuously in signage, because of their legibility and clarity.

Well into the nineteenth century, signs were constructed from simple, natural materials. Signwriting on timber was by far the most common method of projecting a message although three dimensional lettering cut from stone or timber was a well used alternative. With the advent of the incandescent light bulb came the opportunity to illuminate signs and this was done by placing the light bulb behind a signwritten glass panel or by installing bulbs in an open metal trough section which had been manufactured to a letter shape or symbol.

Perhaps the most significant event in the history of signs was the invention of NEON, by a Frenchman called Claude, around 1930. M. Claude perfected the technique of encapsulating gases in an enclosed glass tube and then applying a high voltage electric charge to the tube by means of electrodes. By using various gases – neon, argon and helium being predominant – he was able to produce a variety of colours which was helped even further by coating the inside of the tubes with fluorescent powders.

In order to capitalise on his invention, M. Claude licensed his knowhow on a world wide basis and the Company title of Claude Neon was used in many countries throughout Europe, the Americas, South Africa and Australasia. His product has had a truly dominant effect, particularly in the production of advertising signs, for over 50 years and many world famous sites, including Piccadilly Circus, Times Square and The Ginsa have benefited from this wonderful technology. Today, Neon is still popular but is giving way to modern substitutes such as high intensity LED’s

In the late 50’s, a revolutionary new material hit the market place. Acrylic, a material made from a by product of oil, became readily available in flat sheet form, to a regular thickness and with consistent colour pigmentation. Bearing in mind the nature of the sign business, here was a material ready made for a market where innovation and variation were the name of the game. About the same time as acrylics hit the market place the term “Corporate Identity” also became the new vogue and acrylic, with its ever increasing range of translucent colours, was able to play a major role in the interpretation of many a company’s identity.

Discreet graphics and customised trade marks, or logos, could be displayed in a manner which had only previously been available by signwriting and the translucent properties of acrylics meant that back illumination was a option that, up to that time, had not been possible. During the 60’s and 70’s, the high streets of Britain were covered in vast expanses of plastic signage whilst other traditional products, such as neon tubing, almost became obsolete.

The appearance of large acrylic fascia signs was not always to the benefit of the environment and was also very often to the detriment of the user or advertiser because confusion and chaos could easily reign. Fortunately, a commonsense attitude started to prevail and the use of acrylic in signmaking, although still a major material, became far more discerning. By the mid 80’s, acrylic in sign manufacture had become a material that offered three dimensional options coupled with an extensive range of primary and secondary colours. In addition, CNC technology provided an added dimension and inlaying and marquetry display allowed further precise interpretation of corporate livery.

If the development of both neon and plastics were significant events in the history of signmaking, computerisation must rank alongside each one of them as a major stage in technological advancement. Before computers, all graphic work, whether for initial design, for working drawings or for full size layouts was produced by hand. This process required a great amount of talent, skill and training, and it is very much to the credit of generations of signwriters, designers and draftsmen that graphic reproduction produced by their experienced hands were so accurate and so exact.

The computer was set to change all that and, it has to be said, change it for the better. From a fairly modest and relatively slow beginning, the computer used in sign production today is at the forefront of technology and enables the sign manufacturer to benefit greatly in terms of speed, quality, presentation and accuracy. Added to that, the computer now interfaces with production machinery so that materials are cut or printed in a single process and with a precision that would leave sign workers of yesteryear gasping in amazement!

Like everything that has happened in the Sign Industry, the use of traditional materials has also moved on. In the earlier days, timber, glass, metal, paint and gold leaf were the only materials that a well equipped sign company needed.

Nowadays, the range of materials is not only vast but many man made products have replaced some of the natural elements. Timber, probably the most traditional of natural materials for three dimensional lettering has been replaced with cast resin, glass reinforced plastic (GRP) or thermoformed plastic.

Fascia boards are now more likely to be constructed from pre-coated aluminium than from plywood and whereas mahogany would have at one time been the prime material for framed signwritten wall boards the present material is likely to be MDF (medium density fibreboard). Despite material advancement, some traditional products have survived. Neon is still as popular today as ever and is not threatened by any plausible alternative. Gold leaf is another product that has stood the test of time and although numerous paints and foils have been offered as alternatives there is nothing to compare with the lustre and visual quality of the genuine article.

In the future, there are bound to be new products coming to the market and laser beams, strobes, lenticular displays and holograms are just some of the products now available in the specialised field of three dimensional lighting. But whatever the advancement in sign making materials, the industry is, by its very nature, an industry rich in diverse skills and is likely to remain so.

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