The History Of Retail In 100 Objects – Signage

Signage and Chalkboard_RT

It’s Tuesday so it’s The History Of Retail In 100 Objects post – This weeks object is Signage

Early statistician Gregory King estimated that by the late 17th Century, England and Wales had about 40,000 shopkeepers. They hung signs to display the emblems of their trades and these became a common way for traders to communicate with their customers. When retail began to expand from outdoor markets to permanent premises, retailers (who often lived over the shop) also needed a sign to be able to communicate on e particularly essential piece of information – Open or Closed? In China, signs were originally used in restaurants, teahouses, drugstores, and then draperies, pawnshops, hotels and tobacconists. They were made of cloth, and later leather, bamboo, wood, aluminium, iron, copper and tin, and were hung in front of the doors showing the particular symbol of their trade. Interestingly, there are various taboos in the use of shop signs in China; signs are not ‘hung up’ but ‘invited in’ because gua (hang up) is thought to be unlucky. When a shop sign falls on the ground it is also thought to be a bad omen because the God of Wealth, held in awe by the Chinese, might not approve. In 1389, King Richard II of England, decreed that landlords must put signs outside their inns, so that inspectors could identify and visit them; there is a record from 1393 of a publican being prosecuted for not having a sign. In 1567 and 1577, France issued similar rules. When the signs became too large for safety reasons, in Paris in 1761 and in London around the same time, laws were introduced which dictated that signs had to be placed flat against a wall or removed. Today, retail signage is used to communicate a raft of different messages to consumers. Exterior signage attracts passing trade, while signage inside the retail environment is used for both navigational and promotional purposes. The tent card at the checkout, the (invariably) red and white posters and banners that trumpet ‘SALE’, the branded fascia running the width of the store front – each form of signage has a distinct role to play.

Contribution to Retail History

As well being informative, shop signage also provides a ‘canvas’ through which retailers can speak to their customers, promote and differentiate their brand, inside and outside their premises.


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