Vintage Advertising Signs, Their History and Why We Love Them!

Advertising signs are not a 20th century invention. They come in all shapes and sizes and often delight consumers with their artistic style, wit and design. This blog investigates vintage advertising signs, their history and why we love them!

Early History of Advertising

Early forms of advertising go back centuries. We can look back to the Ancient Egyptian’s, Romans, Ancient Greeks and, of course, the Middle East and China. Evidence shows these cultures using signs carved into rock, wood and even on printed posters! Indeed, through the means of papyrus, painting or carving on jugs, walls and wood, traders communicated their wares to the public! 

Copper Printing Plate -Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop

There is a record, for example, dating back to China’s Song Dynasty  (960-1127 CE) of a copper printing plate used to print posters. The message is one of the earliest examples of brand recognition. The plate roughly translates: “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.” The poster advised consumers to look out for the stone white rabbit outside the shop! 

Imagine walking down a street and not knowing what was behind each door! In medieval times, although optional, traders often used a trade sign outside, to indicate to the public what they had to offer. In busier towns, where many similar businesses congregated, traders added a symbol or picture of an animal as a personal identification. Indeed, some traders even added portraits of well-known people, to attract attention! Public houses legally needed to display a sign outside. A law set by King Richard II, stated if they did not, they forfeited their ale! 

Red Lion Pub Metal Wall Sign

In addition to this, during this period, some manufacturers even displayed heraldic coats of arms on their goods, as a form of endorsement. Of course, this practice is still seen today on goods endorsed by the Royal family! 

Advertising Signs become a nuisance!

By the 16th Century signs became larger and competed for space in narrow streets. These signs proved to be a nuisance, often dangerous and a cause of congestion for popular streets with heavy horse drawn traffic. Governments realised the need for regulation. In France, 1669, a Royal order limited the size of such signs and how far they projected into the streets. London soon followed suit. This gradually gave rise to hanging advertisement signs often being replaced by those fixed against a wall. For the most part, hanging signs generally remained for inns. Some of the greatest artists of the time painted these signs, usually representing the name of the establishment.

Inventions and progress!

In the 1790s the invention of Lithography allowed mass production of posters and announcements. By 1835 travelling circuses began to use billboards to advertise their visit to a town or city. Just 5 years later, P.T. Barnum utilised the first gas lit advertising display! Theatres, drug stores and retailers soon followed suit. 

Personalised Neon Effect Printed Metal Wall Sign

The first electrical signs appeared in 1882 at the International Electrical Exposition. Proving particularly useful to businesses that carried on trade at night, for example, chemists, brothels and coffee houses, these signs grew rapidly in popularity. In the 1920s, neon signs flourished and by the 1930s the flexibility and visibility of these signs became a standard feature in the modern world.

We are privileged!

Bisto Kids Advertising Sign

During this 20th century advertisement revolution, privilege signs began to appear. You may not have heard of this term before, but you will be very familiar with these signs. Privilege signs are created by manufacturers and given to retailers, free of charge, to advertise their product! The signs endorsed products and encouraged consumers to look for the advertised brand in the retailer’s store. Great examples of these, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Brasso etc. 

These advertising signs often complemented radio adverts and later TV commercials. Think about the Bisto kids. Those cheeky urchins, created by artist Will Owen in 1919, first appeared in newspaper advertisements. They then appeared on advertisement signs and remained on our TV screens until 1996!

Why do we love Vintage Signs?

These fabulous signs often remind us of our childhoods. They bring back lovely memories of treats and outings with our families. Ice-cream sundaes, 99 Ice-creams, Cadbury’s Cocoa and who can forget Fry’s chocolate and the five boys’ campaign?

Pears Puppy Advertising Sign

As we discovered earlier, many of these signs often portrayed exceptional artwork too, making them great pieces to display in our homes. A great example of this are the Pears advertising signs. Of course, Pears became famous from the early 20th century for running their ‘Miss Pears’ competition. This high-profile hunt involved parents entering their children for consideration to become the next Pears ambassador. Successful candidates appeared on their branding and advertising!

Of course, the original concept of advertising signs, made them colourful, eye-catching and appealing. Their effect lives on, as many people enjoy collecting them. Subject matters like garage signs and retro diner signs, for example, lend themselves to interior design concepts. Whilst others are brand followers, collecting all the different style of Pepsi signs, for example. 

Sign of our Times!

It is clear, by the number of reproduction signs available, like the ones we sell here, at Metal Wall Signs, that there is still a passion and demand for vintage advertising signs. Whilst the function may have moved from privileged advertising (due to the advancement of the digital age), to decorative, demand for metal wall signs continues to rise. These signs are durable, artistic, sometimes funny, but above all, nostalgic. Vintage advertising signs take us to our ‘happy’ place – that warm fuzzy feeling of sentimentality we get when we look at them!

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