A Brief History of the Sign Industry

Signs of the Times magazine; September, 1976

To understand and appreciate any industrial segment of the United States economy, it is necessary to view it in perspective over its history. Very few products and services have been in general usage longer than signs. Signs have been a fundamental element in trade, commerce and industry for centuries. They are and will continue to be a fundamental factor in our economy as long as there is a need to identify a place of business or express a reason for its existence.

The earliest centuries

Symbolic advertising may have come into existence very early, when individuals banded together into tribes for mutual protection. Certain individuals, who became particularly adept in producing products such as bows, arrows or utensils, probably drew a picture on the entrance of their cave or hut indicating to others that they had products to exchange.
The instinctive desire for product improvement probably provided the basis for competition and craftsmen learned there were rewards for skill and production in quantity. Goods then may have been exchanged on an inter-tribal basis, competition increased, and it became important to tell prospective buyers within a limited territory about the merits of a product or to call attention to the location where the product was for exchange.

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.

The 14th to 18th Centuries

In the 14th century, signs were optional in England except for the pubs.In 1393, Richard II required publicans (tax collectors) to exhibit a sign, but it was not compulsory for other business locations. By the 17th century symbol signs became common in Europe such as:


Civet Cat………………………….Perfumer


Mortar & Pestle…………………Apothecary

Red & White Striped Pole…………Barber

Shoe………………………………..Shoemaker Sugar Loaf…………………………Grocer

Three Golden Balls……………..Pawn Broker

Seventeenth and 18th century England was an endless vista of colorful signboards hanging from shops and banking houses along narrow streets. The signs were quite artistic and even the posts of supports were elaborately worked in wrought iron or in wood carvings as tradesmen competed with each other for better and more distinctive identification for their place of business. When increased travel led to several shops in the same area, signs were accompanied by a name which could be identified by customers. Symbols remained important, however, for many years because many people could not read.

The beginning of sign regulation
Shops began extending their signs farther and father over the street to attract customers. The signs became more elaborate and heavier—a real danger to pedestrians. Regulations began to limit the extension of signs from shops and also controlled their height to prevent injury to the heads of horsemen riding on the streets.
In the early 1700’s, Charles II decreed that no sign should hang across the streets. The problem continued, however, resulting in a 1797 statute ordering the removal of signs which projected or could in any way be considered a problem to the public. One unusual such sign in the latter part of the 17th century consisted of 25 life-size figures. (Delderfield, 1972).

Without street names or building numbers, signs were used for providing directional information for newspapers and other forms of communication. Signs were therefore used not only by tradesmen and their customers, but by the entire population. During the same period of time in France, and particularly in Paris in the 17th century, merchants also competed for trade by using larger and larger signs. Due to this continuing increase in size, an ordinance was passed in 1761 requiring signs to be fixed against shop walls and projection from buildings was limited to four inches.

Thus, today’s sign industry has its roots in earlier centuries, beginning with relatively simple carved and then painted symbols and other types of signs, expanding during medieval days when travel and retail business increased, and growing into the diversified sophisticated graphics signage industry as we know it today.

19th and 20th Centuries
Gas Lighting. The first illuminated sign dates back to 1840 when P.T. Barnum’s Museum was advertised by a gas-lit display. Gas lighting continued to be used on theater marquees, drug stores and other retail stores until the electric lamp was introduced.

Incandescent Bulbs

In 1881 the first electrical sign was built with incandescent bulbs in London, England and featured the word “EDISON” during the International Electrical Exposition in January, 1882. The United States pioneered the night display type of outdoor advertising, and the era of the illuminated sign is distinctly American.

The first electric spectacular was erected in 1891 in New York City. The sign was 50 ft. high and 80 ft. wide and contained 1,457 lamps. The copy was “MANHATTAN BEACH SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES.” In the early 1900’s the use of electric signs in the United States continued to expand as retail merchants recognized the economic advantage (i.e. number of exposures to prospective customers) of on premise signs as compared with newspaper and other forms of advertising.

The first electric sign company. In Chicago in the fall of 1900 Federal Electric Company (now Federal Sign, Division of Federal Signal Corp.) was formed as an off-shoot from Commonwealth Edison Co. which had been renting arclights to its customers. In 1905, in support of Federal Sign System (electric)—a new name selected by Federal Electric Company to reflect its position in the young sign industry—Commonwealth Edison Company published a promotional booklet including pictures of a great number of existing signs in the Chicago area; many are now looked back upon as famous spectaculars.
The introduction to this booklet stated: “Electric sign advertising is a unique means of arousing interest in any kind of merchandising, and attention thereby is attracted, held, and finally turned into purchases…Electric advertising is the cheapest and most efficient means of advertising obtainable. The first cost is small and the upkeep slight, in comparison with other forms of advertising…Customers that cannot be reached in any other manner are obtained through the medium of Electric Sign advertising. In conjunction with other forms of advertising, and Electric sign acts as a follow-up.”
The same statements can be made today, 70 years later, with respect to a well designed and manufactured electrical sign.

Federal Sign System expanded its business by providing incandescent lamp signs to serve both as sidewalk illumination and advertising. Some municipalities granted the right to have a sign extend over the sidewalk only if it provided electrical illumination. Electric signs increased sign values significantly for their users because they reached prospective customers at night.

Most of these electric signs consisted of a colored porcelain enamel center panel carrying the advertising message, surrounded by a border of lamps. A patent was issued to Federal Electric Company, one of the few granted to the sign industry over the years, covering a clamp socket to hold the bulbs. By 1906 there were 75,000 electric signs in use in the United States and 1909 brought the first mass-produced signs consisting of four lamps of eight candle power equipped with on and off flashes.

In 1910, the great chariot race sign in New York City was one of the most famous electrical displays in the world. Erected on the roof of a seven-story building overlooking Herald Square, it featured a Roman chariot race and the sign was composed of 20,000 bulbs of different colors, 70,000 connections and 2,750 switches. The simulated movement of horses, drivers and whips was accomplished by 2,500 flashes per minute and the sign attracted crowds every night for years. The erection of an intervening building ended its period of use by a series of advertisers.

Neon tubes
The 1890’s produced several technical innovations which would eventually accelerate the growth of the sign industry. In 1898, English scientists Sir William Ramsay and William Travers discovered neon gas, and it was duly classified in the rare gas family along with other trace elements in our atmosphere such as helium, argon, krypton and later xenon. Independently, but simultaneously, a French scientist named Georges Claude developed a method for liquifying neon gas which he first disclosed in 1902. Up until that time neon was difficult to produce, tremendously expensive and apparently offered no practical commercial application. Georges Claude continued to perfect the characteristics and promise of neon gas. Claude had found that neon was extremely sensitive to electrical charges which produced a reddish glow when applied. Between 1910 and the start of the war in 1914, Georges Claude worked on the commercialization of tubular illumination and produced some neon tubes 1-1/4 in. in diameter and 10 to 15 ft. in length, with electrodes up to 10 in. long. By 1910 he had perfected a neon discharge tube, and obtained a French patent covering the electrodes and processing system. During this period, Count J. De Beaufort, another French scientist, became associated with Claude in his neon developments and just before the war they conceived the idea of bending tubes into shapes to produce letters, wording and decorative effects. When they discovered that a drop of mercury combined with the neon gas produced a brilliant blue light, the luminous tube advertising industry was born. It is generally agreed, without specific examples, that the first commercial neon signs were installed in Paris by Claude during this period.
During the First World War, Georges Claude was on duty with the French Government in the chemical warfare section. All French cities were blacked out because of air raids, and all development of neon tubes was deferred. Following World War I, however, the sign industry took on a renewed life when the availability and potential of neon as a sign and advertising medium was quickly recognized. The first recorded use of a neon-luminous sign was in 1921. Although such signs were reportedly in use in Paris as early as 1914. As far as can be determined, the first neon sign in the United States was imported from Paris in 1922 by Earl Anthony for Packard Agency in Los Angeles. The approximate price was $1,250 and it contained just the word “Packard.” Two of the signs were purchased, one going to San Francisco.

Through Georges Claude’s activities in the United States in the early 1920’s, based on the patents he obtained in 1915, several sign companies were formed in this country to exploit these patents and several existing companies obtained patent rights to the neon process. Aided by neon and a growing post-war economy, by 1924 there were about 150,000 electric signs in the United States which sold for an average price of about $400. At the same time, because of the maintenance required for neon signs, a trend developed to lease signs with maintenance. The sign leasing concept has grown to this day, aided by capital conservation and tax factors.

Fluorescent tubes
As sign customers became increasingly aware of neon’s advertising advantages, colors in addition to red and blue were requested. Initially tinted glass was used for tubes, but processing was difficult and the colors were not sharp. Need again became the mother of invention. Erich Koch, a German inventor, created a method of applying a fluorescent powder coating on the inner surface of glass tubes and exposing the tubes to ultraviolet radiation — the resulting glow enabled a variety of colors to be processed. Koch received a German patent in 1933, and Claude’s company in France acquired the rights to process and develop it still further to overcome remaining objectionable features such as serious discoloration or blackening and the resultant decrease in light output. Thus, fluorescent tubes became available for sign application.

Beginning in 1934, Claude’s company began the production of commercial signs and lighting with fluorescent tubes. One of their largest projects, which attracted worldwide attention, was at the Brussels Exposition of 1935. Soon Claude licensees began producing fluorescent tubing, and the General Electric Co., after spending millions of dollars in fluorescent tube research, decided that Claude’s patents were basic and entered into a licensing contract with Claude. In granting the license, Claude reserved the rights for the use of this tubing for decorative and advertising purposes. Many large companies, both in Europe and the United States, were involved in this pooling of patents, including General Electric Co., Federal Electric Corp., and Electrical Products Corp. (The latter two companies were the two major sign companies in the United States). Electrical Products Corp. held 18 patents which were pooled with those of Claude to the benefit of the sign industry. In summary, developments in sign illumination, beginning with the incandescent bulb and moving on through neon and fluorescent tubing, provided the major impetus to the growth of the United States sign industry. Evidence of accelerated growth is the 1924-1929 period, when combined gross business for relatively young sign industry in the United States increased from $50,000 annually to over $18 million.
By 1930, practically every city or town, however small, had its neon signs with colors limited to the conventional red neon and mercury blue. From this point on fluorescent tubes took their place along with neon and resulted in increased diversity in the design and manufacture of signs.

During the 1930’s a number of companies not affiliated with the sign industry developed products specifically designed for use by sign manufacturers, such as transformers, electrodes and ballasts — thereby creating a new sign supply industry. As with any growing industry, its successes and expansion created important new business opportunities for the products and services of other companies.

The war years (1914-18 and 1941-45)
During World War I, the sign industry was restricted in the use of materials for sign manufacture, and further expansion of the use of signs as an advertising medium was delayed. Because of the maintenance required for neon signs made in earlier years, a trend had developed to leasing neon signs with maintenance by the company who manufactured them. Such maintenance revenue generated by the need for servicing neon signs helped some of the sign companies through the difficult war period. One large sign company diversified into war-related products such as sirens and fuses, and this has now become a significant national business for the sign company. After World War I, the sign industry renewed its growth with the availability of neon to serve and expanding economy with a now defined appreciation of the commercial value of signage.

World War II had its effect on the sign industry. On June 30, 1942, the manufacture of metal signs was entirely prohibited; transformers used for signs required copper, thereby eliminating the availability of a key sign component. Some larger companies took in various types of government business related to the war effort, such as aircraft parts, communications equipment and metal housings. Sign maintenance again provided continuing business for some. However, the industry generally went into a period of decline and large numbers of experienced signmen left the industry. Following the war, increased consumer demand caused sign companies to be faced with a short supply of materials, particularly transformers. The suppliers of these products began to create new and redesigned items to supply the sign industry. From 1945 until 1948 neon signs once again flourished. During this period sequentially lit or “spelling” neon, animated neon, flashing neon and large neon murals began to reappear. The high point of all neon signs probably was reached just prior to 1948.

The age of plastics
The post World War II sign market, conditioned by the technological advances of the war, demanded new designs, processes, finishes and materials. Most important of these materials in its impact on the sign industry was the advent of colored translucent plastics Many types of plastics had been tried before the war with generally disappointing results. Recognizing the potential in the growing sign industry, the major plastic manufacturers accelerated their development of durable, color-fast, stable materials and simultaneously conducted a concentrated and successful campaign to sell their new products to the ultimate sign user market.

The use of plastics, mainly acrylics, in outdoor custom signs called for a new approach in sign design, fabrication skills and illumination. Plastic signs reduced the need for specialized maintenance service and therefore could be sold directly without the lease or maintenance agreement more common with earlier signs incorporating neon tubing. Plastic signs were a relatively easier sign to manufacture than the neon and porcelain enamel metal which required specialized and costly skills, particularly in bending glass tubes. The educational and promotional campaigns of the plastic producing companies were so effective that plastic is now used in nearly 95 percent of the signs in the United States. Because of the low investment and lesser skills required in manufacturing plastic signs, literally hundreds of small sign companies were formed during the 1950’s. Many of the existing companies gave up their neon facilities, even though the production of neon was at that time still cheaper than some types of plastic signs.

With the introduction of plastic signs, the on-premise neon signs which were so prevalent in many parts of the country tended to deteriorate. The rapidly increasing use of plastic signs represented the tendency of our culture to promote the disposable product and replace the durable. In many instances this meant the loss of beautiful signage artifacts created in the days of neon.

The sign industry today
Sign companies today are providing the same service to our country’s retail, financial and industrial places of business as did the sign producers of ancient times, medieval centuries and the early days of the twentieth century. The sign industry has deep roots in the world’s history, and has broadened its contributions to the increased welfare and success of all kinds of customers.

Composed of over 3,000 sign companies, ranging in size from a handful of employees to many hundreds, the broad diversity of signage and related graphic identification are in evidence everywhere about us. It is estimated that the annual revenues generated by the sign industry approximate $600 million. Sign companies offer on-premise illuminated and non-illuminated signs of many types, directional secondary signage, interior signs, façade and other architectural graphics helping to identify the place of business. The industry draws on a long history of creative artistic design skills and a steadily increasing variety of sign materials to enhance creativity in sign manufacture and a basic understanding of the important relationship between a business and its sign.
Although the sign industry cannot be classified as utilizing high technology, electronic developments in other industries have led to a variety of neon sign concepts over the past ten years to meet modern day needs. Beginning with relatively simple time and temperature displays, utilized extensively by financial institutions for public service purposes in conjunction with their business identification, the sign industry now supplies a variety of electronic and solid state signage.
Some electronic signs enable a customer to display changing messages of varying lengths prepared at his choice on a typewriter-sized computer at his location. Some users arrange for press service news and bulletins to be automatically fed into the sign selected schedules. Others provide current weather information, pollen count and similar public service data.

Several larger sign companies provide complex electronic displays such as the scoreboards at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Houston Astrodome, and the Rose Bowl. One company furnished a computer-controlled multi-display traffic advisory system for the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles. The centuries old sign industry is continuing to prove its ability to design and manufacture signage and displays of all kinds incorporating the latest materials and skills available in order to satisfy the desires and needs of those who serve the general population.

Over the centuries, signs have taken their place in man’s culture, recognized as symbols reflecting the business and environmental needs of each era. Today, the creative design capability of the sign industry enables it to respond to the will and desires of its customers and those responsible for signage planning in our cities and towns.
Signs from earlier days are now recognized and valued as antique artifacts reflecting the American scene, just as many of today’s signs will one day be important to those who cherish the symbols of our 20th century culture.

As the sign industry has adapted to change over the centuries, so will it continue to respond to the desires of today’s and tomorrow’s environment.

Claus, R. J. and Claus K.E., A Brief History of the Sign Industry. In Claus, R. J. and Claus, K.E., Handbook of Signage and Sign Legislation. Palo Alto: Signage Research International, 1975. Chapter 2.
Commonwealth Edison Company. Electric Signs. Chicago, Illinois: Commonwealth Edison Co. no date (circa 1905).
Delderfield, E.R., British Inn Signs and Their Stories. Devon, England: David & Charles, 1972.
Gilchrist, J.M., The First Fifty Years. Chicago: Federal Enterprises Inc. (now Federal Sign), 1951.
Simpson, T.W. The “Reason Why” of Electrical Advertising. San Francisco: Federal Electric, May 25, 1920.