An Incomplete History of Signage: The Evolution Of Sign Materials

Signage, History, Graphic, Display
photo cred: Pete Zarria via Visual Hunt

Signage has reflected man’s culture since the earliest instances of trade development. The industry grew and contracted with the development of new signage materials during and after the World Wars. Over the years, the signage industry took off in every major city as signage technology was perfected. From the earliest gas lit signs to colorful fluorescent bulbs, signage weaves its way into the culture of the time.

Today’s sign industry materials and regulations are influenced from the earliest use of signage. From the simple carved signs to the more complex, gas lit signs came along in 1840 as the latest signage innovation. Gas lit signs alerted the public to theater marquees, drug stores, and retail shops until the electric lamp was introduced.

A few decades later, the first electrical signs were built with incandescent bulbs. Once illuminated signs were in usage, the United States pioneered them further and became known for night display signage. New York City took the lead in creating a spectacular display of electric signage that spanned 50 ft. high by 80 ft. wide and contained approximately 1,400 lamps. At the time, the benefits of electric signs were just catching on for businesses. When electric signage compared to newspaper and print ads, it proved to have the most potential for reaching prospective customers.

Signage, History, Graphic, Display, Curtis, Gregory, Perry
photo cred: Curtis Gregory Perry via Visual Hunt

Later in the early 1940s the claim was often made in favor of signage, that electric sign advertising was an ideal form of advertising – for its efficiency and minimal upkeep. The sentiment still stands today over 70 years later.

Another advancement for the sign industry came in the form of a major discovery of neon gas by Sir William Rams and William Travers. The neon gas would undergo further innovation to become commercially viable by a French scientist Georges Claude. These developments were perfected in conjunction with the start of World War I. It wasn’t until another French scientist, Count J. De Beaufort, joined efforts with Georges Claude that the two discovered a unique combination of mercury and neon gas. Further pushing the luminous tube advertising industry squarely in the picture, the two manipulated the tubes into shapes and letters. Following the end of the First World War, neon signage quickly took off in Paris. Soon after, the first neon-luminous sign was imported from Paris by the Packard Agency in Los Angeles. In 1922, the price of the sign for the agency exceeded $1,200.

Signage, History, Graphic, Display, Photography, Curtis, Gregory, Perry
photo cred: Curtis Gregory via Visual Hunt

The signage industry continued to innovate with the discovery of fluorescent tubes. The process of the luminous tubes allowed a greater array of colors and variety for signage and really started to take off both in Europe and the United States. The onset of luminous lighting for signage such as incandescent bulbs, neon bulbs, and finally fluorescent tubing paved the way for the biggest period of growth in signage history in the years between 1924-1929. The business grew exponentially during this period from an estimated $50,000 a year to over $18 million.

With the signage industry booming in the post World War II era, plastic manufacturers began accelerating development of their materials for signage. One benefit of plastic signs is minimal maintenance compared to the neon signs. The success of plastic use in signage continues to this day and accounts for 95 percent of signs in the United States. Plastic also lowered the level of skill needed to produce the end product and as a result, in the 1950s, sign businesses began to pop up quickly. What this represented was a value placed on disposable products rather than durable.

Signage, History, Graphic, Display, Photography, miklb, Visual, Hunt
photo cred: miklb via Visual Hunt

This brings us to where signage is now. From the exponential growth seen post World War I, to today, the signage industry is estimated to generate over $600 million in revenue. The innovations of signage throughout the years are major evolutionary traits of the industry. In addition, the artistic design skills inherent in the process make up a strong evolutionary component as well.

As signage evolves, we will recognize the neon-lit signs as artifact from a different era. Just as we look back on signage from another time, we will also look back on signage today as a relic of our current culture. Next, we look into the future of what signage will be in 20 years. Stay tuned…

information courtesy of The American Sign Museum