SIGN-BOARD, strictly a board placed or hung before any building to^designate its character. The French enseigne indicates its essential connexion with what is known in English as a flag (q.v.), and in France banners not infrequently took the place of sign-boards in the middle ages. Sign-boards, however, are best known in the shape of painted or carved advertisements for shops, inns, etc., they are in fact one of various emblematic methods used from time immemorial for publicly calling attention to the place to which they refer. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks are known to have used signs, and many Roman examples are preserved, among them the widely-recognized bush to indicate a tavern, from which is derived the proverb " Good wine needs no bft&r." In some cases, such as the bush, or the three balls of pawnbrokers, certain signs became identified with certain trades, but apart from these the emblems employed by traders evolving often into trade-marks may in great part be grouped according to their various origins. Thus, at an early period the cross or other sign of a religious character was used to attract Christians, whereas the sign of the Sun or the Moon would serve the same purpose for pagans. Later, the adaptation of the coats of arms or badges of noble families became common ; these would be described by the people without consideration of the language of heraldry, and thus such signs as the Red Lion, the Green Dragon, etc., have become familiar. Another class of sign was that which exhibited merely persons employed in the various trades, or objects typical of them, but in large towns where many practised the same trade, and especially, as was often the case, where these congregated mainly in the samj street, such signs did not provide sufficient distinction. Thus a variety of devices came into existence sometimes the trader used a rebus on his own name (e.g. two cocks for the name of Cox); sometimes he adopted any figure of an animal or other object, or portrait of a well-known person, which he considered likely to attract attention. Finally we have the common association of two heterogeneous objects, which (apart from those representing a rebus) were in some cases merely a whimsical combination, but in others arose from a popular misconception of the sign itself (e.g. the combination of the " leg and star " may have originated in a representation of the insignia of the garter), or from corruption in popular speech (e.g. the combination " goat and compasses " is said by some to be a corruption of " God encompasses ") Whereas the use of signs was generally optional, publicans were on a different footing from other traders in this respect. As early as the 14th century there was a law in England compelling them to exhibit signs, for in 1393 the prosecution of a publican for not doing so is recorded. In France edicts were directed to the same end in 1567 and 1577. Since the objoct of sign-boards was to attract the public, they were often of an elaborate character. Not only were the signs themselves large and sometimes of great artistic merit (especially in the 16th and 17th centuries, when they reached their greatest vogue) but the posts or metal supports protruding from the houses over the street, from which the signs were swung, were often elaborately worked, and many beautiful examples of wrought-iron supports survive both in England and on the Continent. The signs were a prominent feature of the streets of London at this period. But here and in other large towns they became a danger and a nuisance in the narrow ways. Already in 1669 a royal order had been directed in France against the excessive size of sign-boards and their projection too far over the streets. In Paris in 1761 and in London about 1762-1773 laws were introduced which gradually compelled sign-boards to be removed or fixed flat against the wall. For the most part they only survived in connexion with inns, for which some of the greatest artists of the time painted sign-boards, usually representing the name of the inn. With the gradual abolition of sign-boards the numbering of houses began to be introduced in the 18th century in London. It had been attempted in Paris as early as 1512, and had become almost universal by the close of the 18th century, though not enforced until 1805. It appears to have been first introduced into London early in the 18th century. Pending this development, houses which carried on trade at night (e.g. coffee houses, etc.) had various specific arrangements of lights, and these still survive to some extent, as in the case of doctors' dispensaries and chemists' shops.
See Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten, History of Signboards (London, 1866).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)