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Pubs and Puns – a short history of storefront signage

Storefront signage is such an essential part of how we relate to and interact with businesses in the modern cityscape that most of us probably never stop to wonder about its history. Signs identifying different businesses and trades have been an ubiquitous part of the urban landscape for a very long time indeed. Stone and terracotta signboards from ancient Greece and Rome survive, but it was in the High Middle Ages, when cities and urban trade were reviving and growing rapidly, that the use of commercial signage as we know it began.

Premodern and early modern signs addressed a typically illiterate audience so they used symbols and images to attract attention and identify their businesses. Roman signboards used symbols like a bush to identify a tavern, or three balls to identify a pawnbroker. A cross might be used to attract Christians, while a sun or moon might be used to attract pagans. Some symbols came to be widely identified with certain trades and evolved into trademarks – icons used to identify particular trades.

In the Middle Ages pubs and inns were the businesses most likely to use a sign. In many places pubs had to have clear signage to make them identifiable to inspectors. Beer quality was important at a time when water was often not drinkable, so landlords who brewed beer were subject to inspection. Medieval signage often co-opted the imagery and language of heraldry, which is where we get common pub names such as the Red Lion.

As towns grew and developed specialized trade districts, artisans and traders developed individual devices to distinguish their businesses and attract customers, much like how modern businesses use unique and eye catching signage. These signs were still aimed at a largely illiterate audience, so continue to rely on images over words. Some traders used rebuses of their names, such as two roosters for the name Cox. Others simply used a distinctive image of an animal or object, others used memorable combinations of objects that paired whimsically or to make a pun. For example, the combination of a goat and compass was said to be a corrupted pun of the phrase “God encompasses”. Some businesses even used a portrait of a well known person to attract patrons!

In the sixteenth through seventeenth centuries, signs became increasingly elaborate in an effort to attract attention. The signboards, posts, and supports all became ornate, artistic, and often quite large. The excessive number and size of signs in this period actually became a public hazard leading to various royal orders and laws limiting the size of urban signs!

In the nineteenth century painted signboards were an artistic specialty and businesses that operated mainly at night, such as coffee houses, started to use specific lighting to identify themselves. With the adoption of house numbering and increase in literacy, the quantity and aggressiveness of signage declined, but unique signage remains a tool used by businesses to distinguish themselves and attract customers off the street.

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