Brief History of Sign Writing

A brief history of signboards and sign writing

Sign writing has never just been displayed on signboards it was practised in olden times in churches and other religious establishments. From 11 century wall inscriptions of texts from the scriptures to the beautiful illuminated lettering of the medieval period. However, painted lettering and signs go back even further, 2000 years or more. Archaeology from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum have unearthed various types of trade signs made of stone, terracotta and painted ones. The sign of a bush was an inn sign or ears of corn and a millstone for a baker. With the growth of towns and increase in trade and also competition amongst businesses in Elizabethan times, signs became more popular as a way of identifying a business with potential customers. By the 17th Century signs being produced in large towns and cities were of a very high calibre. These signs, however were not sign written as they are today.

Back then pictures announced the trade or service to the public because most people were illiterate. The craftsmen who produced these signs were known as sign painters which exactly described what they did. In fact some famous artists turned their hand to paint some inn signs such as Hogarth, Mortland, Cox, Holbein and Millais. In 1655 a very elaborate sign was installed at the White Hart at Scole in Norfolk which cost a massive £1057, and incredible amount for those times. In the large cities of the country there were elaborately painted swing signs hung from even more highly embellished wrought ironwork which stretched across the narrow streets. In 1718 the whole front of a London building was pulled down when it could no longer take the weight of the signboard and bracket fixed to it. Some time between 1762 and 1770 Parliament decreed that all of London’s projecting signboards should be taken down and refixed flat against the walls of buildings.

Although the use of signs by traders can be traced back to the Roman Empire it was not until the 17th century that they gained in significance.


When literacy levels in the 18th century rose sign writing began to appear on signboards alongside pictorial images. There was a very long transitional period before the signwriter replaced the sign painter and the written sign succeeded the pictorial sign. Although there is still a tradition of pictorial signs even today especially for inns and taverns, where some of the names of these establishments date back to the Middle Ages. Then heraldic images of local noble families were used, such as The Red Lion, The White Hart, The Bear, The Eagle and Child and the Talbot. So although signwriting only appeared on signs sometime during the 18th century we can see that the art of hand painted lettering is an ancient one, indeed it is widely accepted that the carved lettering on the Trajan columns in Rome were first written by brush and then carved. Some very good examples of handpainted signwriting can still be seen all over Brighton & Sussex.


British Inn Signs