Signs of the Times: How People Have Used Signs Throughout History

Think about the sheer number of banners and signs you see on any given day: traffic signs on your morning commute, sale signs at the grocery store, celebratory signs for milestone accomplishments like birthdays and graduations. Signs play a big role in everyday life. You may be surprised to learn that signs have been a go-to communication strategy for much of recorded human history. The historic uses of signs and their evolution to modern-day marketing tools is truly a wondrous journey in human communication.

What’s in a Word?

The word sign as we know it today, dates back to 1300 CE and comes from the Old French word “signe” which means ‘mark’ or ‘token’. It commonly referred to a ‘gesture or motion of the hand’. Signs, essentially, have always been a way to visually convey information. 

The Early Signs

Scholars observe that signs dating back to the prehistoric era were first made by applying materials like ash or liquid to a stone or wood surface. Oftentimes, these early signs provided instructions for rituals, for religious celebration, or to offer guidance for activities like hunting. Some early examples of signs include Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the Lascaux cave drawings, and Stonehenge. 

At a point in history when most of the world’s population could not read, signs played a significant role in information sharing. Their imagery served a wide variety of purposes from honoring religious narratives and traditions to providing cautionary tales. Similar to how they are used today, shopkeepers would use leaves and vines to signal customers that they were a place of commerce. 

Ancient Greeks and Romans used terra cotta or stone signs to help customers identify taverns or carpentry workshops. Flashforward to 1389 CE, and England’s King Richard III actually required any business which sold ale to place a sign outside of their establishments. The history of this type of politically regulated sign is still apparent today with the presence of safety and traffic signs.

Banners: The Move to Modern Day Messaging 

From beer to battle, signs have historically served many purposes. Knights used banners to distinguish themselves on the battlefield and represent their alliances. The tradition of using banners in battle is still seen today. Dating back to the Revolutionary War, American naval ships have used banners to adorn battleships with patriotic flair; navy banners are still used today to commemorate special occasions. 

Beyond battle, banners were used to unite people under a common cause. By the 19th century, banners allowed workers to band together and represent different trades. These signs typically featured silk draped over a wooden frame. Shortly after labor unions used signs in the fight for better working conditions, suffragists used banners to amplify their voices and lobby for voting rights. 

In 1907, the Artists’ Suffrage League of England created clear guidelines for the text and colors to be used on voting rights banners. These aesthetic principles were employed by American suffragists too! In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton expanded the guidelines to include yellow and gold. This addition of color is what inspired suffragists to wear yellow flowers during protests.

The fight for equal rights did not end with the ratification of the 19th amendment. Later in the 20th century, Civil Rights leaders used banners to spread their message and advocate for freedom and equality during the era’s marches and protests. Throughout history, banners and signs have played a powerful role in building businesses and serving as a mouthpiece for activists.  

Signage in These Strange Times 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted modern-day life. Social distancing regulations and shutdowns, though necessary to combat the spread of infection, have made many people feel disconnected from one another. Some communities have found creative ways to stay connected despite the isolation.

People all over the globe are rallying together and sharing messages of hope through signs. There are countless examples of communities coming together and using signs and banners to support healthcare workers, celebrate graduating seniors, and welcome their neighbors home from the hospital. Even in the digital age, it is clear that signs are still a powerful tool for communication and human connection.

From stone and terra cotta to silk and wood to modern-day safety signage print billboards, the medium of signage has rapidly evolved thanks to technological advancements. The purpose of signage, however, has remained the same. Signs are still used to promote new business, celebrate major life accomplishments and advocate for social change. Your business can design banners and signs to promote your brand, offer your community messages of hope, and stand in solidarity with your neighbors. 



Online Etymology Dictionary

Signage: a Historical perspective

MIT Media Lab

The Historical Roots of Britain’s Pub Signs


History of Banners


Battle Streamers

Naval History and Heritage Command

Crafting a Voice: The History of Suffrage Banners


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