I visited Fribourg. It is a charming, medieval town. Wonderful old details have been preserved and in the historic quarters many new additions are consistent with the traditional surroundings. Before streets were numbered, buildings and businesses were identified by symbols carved into the buildings or signs hanging from them. Walking through the streets, I noticed many hanging wrought iron signs with icons over shops, cafes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
Such signs were hugely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their purpose was to attract the public; they were a sort of advertising. As a result, they were often artistic and elaborate. Even the metal posts from which they hung were elaborately worked. They functioned not only to identify the business and as advertisement, but also as landmarks for directional information before street names and building numbers.
Over time, certain symbols became common on signs as a sort of code to help the illiterate public identify the nature of the business inside. They include:
- Bible = Bookseller
- Civet Cat = Perfumer
- Key = Locksmith
- Mortar & Pestle = Apothecary
- Red & White Striped Pole = Barber (the red stripe signifies the bloodletting they preformed)
- Shoe = Shoemaker
- Sugar Loaf = Grocer
- Three Golden Balls = Pawn Broker (this became the symbol of the Medici family)
- Eagle on a bolt of cloth = Merchants, finishers and dyers of foreign cloth
- Lambs = Wool manufacturers and merchants
- Alehouse = traditional garland of leaves or hops
Eventually, increased travel led to competition. To differentiate themselves from their competition, signs began bearing the name of the business and a representative symbol for illiterate customers. Over time, the sizes and heights became more or less standardized to keep those on horseback from banging their noggin. While these types of signs were common in Europe, different areas enacted different rules governing their size and height.
I chuckled at some of the more modern twists on the signs. WC means water closet. This sign marks the entrance to public toilets.
Even Starbucks got themselves one.
I have to admit, they are a bit more charming (if less hypnotizing) than the giant neon signs that are so prevalent in the US. Looking for pictures of them made me a bit homesick, but not hungry.
- Why Anvils are Shaped as They Are and Why Blacksmiths Often Tap the Anvil After a Few Strikes on the Object They’re Working On (todayifoundout.com)
- Fribourg, Freiburg, A Charming Town And Lots Of Fun In Any Language (schwingeninswitzerland.wordpress.com)