Evolution of Public Signage

What’s one thing a barbershop, a laundromat, and an arcade all have in common? No, not quarters. They all have some sort of signage advertising their services. In fact, most businesses do.

Human beings have been communicating since the dawn of time, and our methods of communication have evolved dramatically over the centuries. From cave paintings to digital signage screens, we have come a long way in our ability to share information with others. Signs are especially vital when it concerns business or commercial services. In fact, signs are so important that over 76% of the respondents to a survey revealed that they’ve previously visited a store or business due to attractive signage.

In this article, we will take a journey through time and explore the evolution of public communication and signage, starting with the earliest forms of signage and moving on to the latest technologies.

1. Cave Paintings

Paleolithic Era (18,000 BC)

We can trace the earliest forms of public communication back to prehistoric times when humans used cave paintings to tell stories and communicate with others. These paintings often depicted hunting scenes, animals, and other important aspects of their lives. The drawings were simple and made with natural materials like charcoal or mud.

According to National Geographic, the world’s oldest known animal cave art dates back more than 45,000 years!

Example of cave painting in the evolution of public signage

2. Hieroglyphics

Ancient Egypt (3000 BC – 500 AD)

 The next major development in public communication was the creation of hieroglyphics by the ancient Egyptians. Hieroglyphics was a system of writing that used pictures to represent words and concepts. They were used on monuments, tombs, and other public spaces to communicate with the masses.

Hieroglyphics were a major advancement because they allowed for more complex ideas to be expressed and preserved for future generations.

Hieroglyphics were an original type of writing, from which other writing styles sprung from. Two of these newer styles were Hieratic and Demotic. Hieratic was a simpler version of hieroglyphics used for administrative, commercial, and literary purposes. On the other hand, Demotic, meaning “common script” in Greek, was used by people in their everyday lives.

As civilization progressed, so did the methods of public communication.

Tablets made from clay or stone were used in ancient Mesopotamia to record important events and keep track of business transactions. Papyrus, made from reeds, was used by the ancient Egyptians to create scrolls that were used to record their history and communicate with others.

Example of hieroglyphs  in the evolution of public signage

3. Grecian and Roman Street Signs

(800 BC – 500 BC)

The earliest examples of business signage can be traced back to Ancient Rome and Greece. In these ancient societies, people used signs with unique symbols to indicate different types of businesses and entertainment venues. These symbols helped the mostly illiterate locals and visitors easily identify the services or products offered by a particular establishment.

Interestingly, some of these ancient symbols are still used today.

For instance, the red-and-white pole that we commonly associate with barbershops has its roots in Ancient Rome. Back then, the pole was used as a sign to indicate the presence of someone who was skilled in cutting hair. So, even after all these years, we continue to use a symbol from the past to identify a familiar service in our modern world.

4. English and French Wooden Signs

Middle Ages (1000 AD – 1700 AD)

In the 14th century, English laws began requiring innkeepers and landlords to display signs outside their establishments. King Richard II of England, in 1389, made it mandatory for tavern owners to put up signs outside their businesses to show they sold ale. This rule was designed to help inspectors easily identify public houses and check the quality of the ale being served, as drinking water wasn’t always safe at that time, leading people to drink ale as a safer alternative.

The practice of using signs to identify businesses spread throughout the Middle Ages, extending to various types of commercial establishments. Similar regulations were implemented across Europe. For instance, in France, laws were enacted in 1567 and 1577, requiring innkeepers and tavern-keepers to display signs outside their establishments.

As time went on, signs became more elaborate, from carefully painted chalkboards to beautiful hand-carved wood and even huge wrought iron signs. At one point, the size and placement of signs became a problem due to explosive growth in cities, so laws were made about how big signs could be and where they could be placed.

5. Electric and Gas-powered Signs

(1800 – 1940s)

The evolution of business signage saw several significant milestones during and after the Industrial Revolution. For brevity, we’ve arranged them chronologically below:

  • The 1800s: The introduction of lighting transformed the business world, with casinos and movie theaters being the first to use gas-lit signs.
  • 1879: The invention of the light bulb allowed for electric-powered signs, encouraging more businesses to use lighting in their signs.
  • The 1890s: Porcelain (enamel) signs were first created in Germany and later became popular in US stores by the 1900s.
  • 1900: The first twenty-four-sheet billboard emerged, changing roadside signage forever.
  • 1910: The first neon sign, which was gas-powered, was invented in France.
  • 1915: The first neon sign was installed in Los Angeles.
  • The 1920s: Neon signs became popular, initially using gas power, making gas lights the industry standard once again by 1930.
  • The 1930s: Due to accidents and fires, businesses quickly reverted to electric lighting, which was more cost-effective. During this time, porcelain signs represented the era of commercial printing and mass production.
  • Post-World War II: Sign shops became widespread, and the introduction of plastics, vinyl, neon and fluorescent lighting spurred competition in the business signage market.

Throughout this period, the innovations of gas and electric power illuminated streets and public areas at night, revolutionizing both public activities and outdoor signage. This allowed more people to spend time outside at night and enabled businesses to advertise their products and services around the clock. The result was bigger, brighter signs, bustling cities, and the rapid rise of capitalism.

6. Split-Flap Boards

(1950s – 1990s)

In the 20th century, a clock inventor called Solari di Udine introduced split-flap boards as a new way to display information in public spaces. These mechanical boards used rotating flaps to display text and graphics, and were used in train stations, airports, and other public spaces to share information with the masses. They had this exciting and luxurious feel that was lacking in the neon signages of the times.

Split-flap boards saw a steady rise in use until they were eventually replaced by digital signage screens.

However, they are still in use in some places for their nostalgic and unique appeal.

In Australia, for example, there are three working boards in the Qantas first class lounges at Sydney and Melbourne airports. Additionally, there are two retained in the remarkable TWA Hotel at New York’s JFK International Airport. Also at Brussels Airport there is still a large Split-Flap board operational.

In fact, Split-Flap boards are making a comeback, but with adaptations to make them more affordable and easier to maintain.

Companies like Split-Flap TV are bringing back the nostalgia of this beautiful form of signage. By combining the aesthetics of the original Split-Flap board with digital technology and regular television screens, they preserve the visual appeal and functionality of traditional split-flap boards while offering the convenience and cost-effectiveness of modern solutions.

This fusion of old and new allows businesses like shops, restaurants, hotels, or offices to stand out by incorporating a distinctive and stylish form of communication.

Moreover, it’s so easy to get started with Split-Flap TV. All you need to do is buy a television or tablet and download the app. The revival of these classic display boards not only adds a touch of nostalgia to modern establishments but also enhances the overall customer experience.

Example of split-flap board in the evolution of public signage

7. Digital Signages

(1990 – Present)

In the 1980s and 1990s, business owners started using large TVs in storefront windows to display video advertisements. This idea led to the growth of digital technology in signage and public communication. Sign companies continually improved upon early digital signage ideas, creating more effective solutions.

Nowadays, digital screens use high-definition displays and advanced software to display text, graphics, and video in public spaces. They are used in retail stores, airports, and other public spaces to share information with the masses.

Digital signage screens have revolutionized the way we communicate with others, and are an essential tool for any business that wants to stay ahead of the curve.

PresentationPoint and SignageTube are two leading companies in the digital signage industry that offer a wide range of software and tools for creating stunning displays.

While PresentationPoint’s digital signage software allows users to create engaging presentations with real-time data and social media feeds; SignageTube, on the other hand, offers a cloud-based digital signage platform that can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection.

This means you can control your digital signage from halfway across the world! That’s a far cry from cave paintings on a wall, isn’t it?

Example of modern digital signage television in the evolution of public signage

Celebrating the Fusion of Vintage Signage and Modern Innovations

In conclusion, the evolution of public communication has been a long and fascinating journey. From cave paintings to digital signage screens, humans have been constantly finding new and better ways to communicate with each other and promote their services.

More people are embracing the art of signage even in non-commercial areas like homes, schools and theaters. You can too.

Contact us to schedule a FREE demo today.

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