Colonial Type Signs


In colonial America, tradesmen would hang symbols of an object of their trade in front of their business like the shoe for the shoemaker shown above. Photo from Williamsburg, VA, 4/4/2014.



Last week I was in Williamsburg with folks from the Virginia Credit Union League. It was interesting to attend meetings so close to a restored piece of American history, and it was especially neat to see how signage was presented in Colonial times. Colonial type signs were everywhere!

When you think about it, commercial signage goes way back. Much farther into the past than most think. If you’re interested in the history of signs, here’s an excerpt on their history from our friends at The American Sign Museum and Signs of the Times Magazine:

“The earliest advertising medium was probably that of a “crier” or “barker.” As trade developed, the producer had a fixed location and called attention to the merits of his goods by hanging out identifying insignia. The use of on-premise, i.e., at the place of sale, advertising as a medium was inaugurated. There are definite records of advertising executed in stone and on bricks as early as 3000 B.C.

From 3000 B.C. and for more than 4,000 years thereafter during the Egyptian, Grecian and Roman civilizations, and on through the Middle Ages, the use of advertising displays at the place of business constituted the only important and effective advertising medium. Tradesmen’s signs were prevalent in ancient Egypt and Greece. They were widespread in early Rome — sometimes painted, sometimes carved in stone or designed in terra cotta. One of the most widely used signs in Rome was a bush of ivy and vine leaves, associated with Bacchus the God of Wine, and attached to a pole to identify a tavern. Most Roman shops displayed a sign of some sort, and many were uncovered in the ruins of Pompeii and other cities.

After the Dark Ages, exploration and trade expeditions clearly enlarged the commercial world. It was a prosperous era in business. Wealth encouraged the arts, and talent found expression in painting, architecture and literature. Merchant’s signs in England, France and Italy began to come under artistic influences and reflected novel designs and colors. The signs were a means of expression for many artists, and involved elaborate carvings, gilt and paints. It is important to note that from the beginning of tribal life up to the middle of the 18th century there is no record of any advertising medium in use except that of criers and on-premise signs and displays. Advertising was strictly an outdoor medium used to designate the point of sale and the types of goods sold. In addition to the economic value of signage of all kinds as we know it today, signs have reflected man’s culture since these earliest centuries…”  Read the whole story at




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