Think of any well-known company and the chances are you’ll be able to picture their logo. These days companies often put a lot of time, effort and money into creating distinctive symbols for their brand, to trigger consumer recognition. This practice actually has a long history and the observant can find evidence of this walking around the historic parts of London.
Up until the reign of Charles I, only innkeepers were permitted to use hanging signs in London. Charles removed this restriction essentially to make it easier for people to find their way about in an ever-growing city. Sadly, the Great Fire of London which occurred about 20 years after his death destroyed almost all of these original signs, along with pretty much everything else. Of course, in true London style, disaster was turned into opportunity as the city was rebuilt even better than before (and this time in more fire-resistant stone).
Even by the late 17th century, London was a renowned, international centre of commerce and in an age where few people could read, businesses and their associated guilds turned to symbols to make people aware of who, what and where they were. Some of these symbols were fairly obvious, such as a spool of thread for a silk weaver, others were much less so, such as a dragon for an apothecary. Familiarity, however, bred recognition and Londoners then probably thought no more about why the apothecaries would use dragons than we do about why Starbucks is represented by a lady who looks like a mermaid (she’s actually a siren, apparently the idea was to make coffee sexy, bonus points if you knew that Starbucks was actually named after a character in Moby Dick called Lieutenant Starbuck).
Over the course of the centuries, these trade signs grew more complex, particularly when buildings changed hands and the new owners often incorporated part of the old, familiar, logo (as we would call it) together with their own logo, so that those walking through the streets could see that although they presumably were where they thought they should be, the building in front of them was under new ownership. More complicated signs with more symbols on them required more space and, indeed, signs became as much symbols of status as place identifiers. As such they grew bigger and bigger - until in 1718 a high wind brought down one of them, killing 4 people as it landed. Even with this warning, it took until 1762 before the danger of hanging signs grew so obvious that a commission was appointed to see that they were all removed and replaced with signs which were securely fixed to the building.
Up until about the middle of the 19th Century, the continual growth of London, both in terms of population and in terms of geographical area, was much faster than the growth in levels of literacy. Since people were unable to read the names of streets written out in signs, symbols were used instead. By the mid-19th Century, however, these signs were beginning to be supplanted by the sort of written signs we would recognize today and then bit by bit they began to be eradicated almost completely, although the originals do still exist in some areas while other areas have replaced them with replicas other other forms of tribute.
In some ways, however, perhaps modern London is not so very different from the historic city. We suspect there are more than a few people still navigate their way around the city with the help of symbols, such as the brand logos prominently displayed on London’s famous shops.