The History of Business Signs

Business signs haven’t always been as commonplace as they are today, but the concept of using signs as advertisement is nearly as old as time.

The painting “Four Times Night,” completed in 1738 by William Hogarth, shows a street scene with plenty of signs.

The First Signs

The first business signage was found in Ancient Rome and Greece. There, communities used signs with individual symbols meant to denote various types of businesses and entertainment.

Some of these symbols are still in use. For example, how Ancient Romans signaled the location of someone qualified to cut hair with — you guessed it — a red-and-white pole!

As early as the 14th century, English law compelled innkeepers and landlords to exhibit signs. In 1389, King Richard II of England ordered tavern owners to erect signs outside their premises.

The legislation said, “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.” Legislation was intended to make public houses easily visible to passing inspectors of the quality of the ale they provided. (Back then, drinking water was not always good to drink and ale was a common replacement).

The practice of using signs spread to other types of commercial establishments throughout the Middle Ages. Similar legislation was enacted in Europe. For instance, in France edicts were issued 1567 and 1577, compelling innkeepers and tavern-keepers to erect signs.

Later, business signage evolved. Where signs had once only indicated locations, businesses began using them to advertise, as well. One of the earliest instances of this took place in Ancient China, with a poster that read, “Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop: We buy high-quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.”

As times changed, so did signage. By 1700, almost every business was using at least one sign for advertising and display purposes. Signs also became more artistic, boasting a variety of colors; some even were done with gold foiling, which was the highest quality signage one could acquire at the time.

Jumping Forward

In the 1800s, lighting came onto the scene and forever changed business. The first businesses to use lighting in their signs were casinos and movie theaters. At that time, they used gas-lit signs.

In 1879, the invention of the light bulb allowed signs to be powered by electricity rather than gas. It was a much safer lighting source and spurred more businesses to use light in their signs.

In the 1920s, neon signs began popping up. Because neon signs were gas powered, they turned the lighting source curve backwards and, by 1930, gas lights were once again the industry standard.

However, this was short-lived due to accidents and fires, prompting a quick move back to electric lighting, which was also cheaper to maintain.

By the end of WWII, sign shops were common place, and the introduction of plastics and fluorescent lighting prompted a lot of competition in the business signage market.


Digital signage was conceptualized in the 1980s and ’90s by creative business owners who used large televisions in store-front windows to display VHS and, later, DVD advertisements.

Soon, sign companies were building off the idea to make something even better for their consumers. Today, digital signage is much more impressive and cost effective. In fact, a recent industry report by TMR shows that eye-popping 76 percent of surveyed people said they have entered a store simply because the digital signage was compelling.

Nobody Knows Business Signage Like Persona

If you are shopping for business signage, call Persona. We are leaders in the industry, and signage is one of our specialties! We can’t wait to wow you with our offerings.

Persona is your premiere signage vendor. We’ve been doing it for 38 years and serve more than 200 name-brand companies at more than 7,000 locations across North America each year. If you’re interested in updating your signage, or just want to learn more, give us a call today!