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Shop signs - Enseignes - Origins - Paris

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Shop signs, the oldest form of advertisement

Shop signs were already used during the Antiquity.

Terracotta and stone signs, recovered in Egypt, Greece and Rome, were indeed used to advertise various trades, groups or associations.

The Romans most likely imported them when they conquered Gaul (modern France) two thousand years ago.

The use of shop signs - or enseignes in French - seem to have dropped in the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire though.

However, signs re-appeared in the early 13th century.

Shop signs indeed remained, until the French Revolution, the only way to identify houses or trades in the way modern house numbers do.

They were mainly coat of arms and wooden or stone statuettes placed above the main entrance door or on the facade.

Shop signs during the Middle Ages

They helped visitors identify the owner of the private house or mansion they were visiting.

Inns and hostels started to follow the example a century later and used signs so that their provincial and foreign customers could find them easily.

The signs they used were different though, as they consisted of straw placed above their entrance!

However, the use of shop signs became so common during the 15th century that every house, inn, restaurant, hostel and shop had its own.

By then, they had become proper board-signs, painted metal sheets, suspended at the extremity of a metal or wooden pole.

These had to be as large as possible in order to attract attention and advertise a trade!

Their popularity, however, eventually declined as their overwhelming number became a true hindrance.

Not only did they darken the narrow and busy medieval alleys, but they were also noisy and dangerous.

They indeed swung and threatened to fall at the slightest gust of wind and were a hazard for horsemen!

Hanging shop signs were eventually banned and replaced with painted boards and facades in the mid-18th century.

Decline and revival

Signs then gradually disappeared, as the cities expanded, and were replaced by house numbers.

However, shop signs reappeared in the last decades and shop owners today compete of ingenuity and creativity in order to produce the most original design.

Contemporary or old fashioned, signs come in many shapes, colours and styles.

However, there seems to be a trend for medieval-looking signs.

There are obviously a strict set of rules regarding their size and position on the facade.

Signs revive a long gone tradition and are a true pleasure to the eye.

So look up when strolling in Paris and you'll see Paris under a new angle.

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