What did logos in the Middle Ages look like? While they weren’t as refined as the product markings we know and recognize today, logos have a storied history that began unfolding centuries ago – and they started with beer and bread. We’ll show you examples of ancient logos and detail the evolution of logos and technology through the ages – from 400 BCE to today.
Long before the first logo was legally trademarked in 1876, businesses and tradesmen were using marks to develop and cement brands. People used them even in ancient times to build awareness, recognition and brand loyalty – the same way we do today.
Logos and symbols in the ancient world
The word logo originated in ancient Greece. It’s short for logotype which comes from the Greek term logos (meaning “word”) and typos (meaning “imprint”).
While logos today are prominent symbols in mass communication, using symbols to convey ownership and meaning is a tradition that reaches back to 3200 BCE in ancient Egypt.
Rulers in ancient Greece started striking coins with their own portraits around 400 BCE. This wasn’t just an act to boost a king’s ego. A ruler’s face on a coin lent credibility by association to local issuers and those engaging in business transactions with the currency.
Counterfeiting currency was punishable by death, a longstanding tradition. In 17th Century England, counterfeiters were hung, then drawn and quartered — a grisly object lesson. A century later, Benjamin Franklin printed 20-shilling notes emblazoned with this cheerful warning: “To Counterfeit is Death.”
Branding lessons from the ancient civilizations
• Symbols are used to communicate ownership. The ancient Egyptians are the earliest well-known society who used a combination of abstract and pictorial symbols to convey meaning in a commonly recognizable way.
• Associating with a brand lends a degree of influence and authority. Credibility, trustworthiness and other qualities can be inferred by association.
The first trademark laws of the Middle Ages
You might have guessed that everyday staples, bread and beer, were the first to require legal trademark use.
In the Middle Ages, bread and beer were the pillars of daily life. It only made sense to begin to protect the integrity and quality of the products being produced at the time by legal means.
King Henry III passed the first law regulating the size, price, and quality of bread produced in England. To ensure that bread loaves could be traced to their bakery of origin, bakers stamped their goods with uniquely identifying marks.
Löwenbraü, a German brewery, claims its trademark and use of the lion’s head symbol dates back to 1383.
Before the industrial era, artisans produced goods in “craft guilds” where they would work side by side in a large work space, the “craft hall.” The guild organization, rather than the individual artisan, sought to protect its reputation by branding its goods with a mark — the “hall mark.”
This need to protect purchasers and a maker’s reputation is so strong, so pervasive, it survives in our modern term for an identifying brand characteristic: a “hallmark of quality.”
Branding lessons from this period
• Marks protect customers from poor quality. With the Bakers Marking Law of 1266 and similar laws, bread, beer and other goods could be traced to their point of origin which helped protect consumers if quality was low.
• Marks protect businesses from infringement by low-quality knock-offs. The marks gave makers recourse to protect their brand from imposters hurting their reputation.
There are a lot of similarities between the way people in the Middle Ages used logos and the way we utilize them today, but the advent of digital technology has changed things considerably. Let’s fast-forward a few centuries and take a look at how more recent technology has shaped logos and the way businesses approach branding.
The evolution of logos in the 18th century to modern day
The simpler marks of the 13th and 14th century gave way to complex, detailed, artistic renderings that served not only to identify a company, but to develop a brand – conveying a mission, tone, and set of values. An increase in visual arts interest led to better techniques (especially lithographic processes) – both elements that made logo mark design reach new heights.
A great example of the evolution of logos from the 18th century to modern day comes from Prudential Insurance, a company that’s been around since 1870. Their “Rock of Gibraltar” logo started out as an artistic rendering with lots of complexity – even including details of the company’s insurance offerings (“Life insurance, both sexes, ages 1 to 70, amounts $15-50,000”).
By 1910, Prudential had shifted to a more simplistic version of the former logo, and 30 years later, they (briefly) moved away from the circular shape and opted for a rectangular logo with less text and the use of thin lines at the bottom.
In 1984, it’s clear that the more modern idea of simple design reigned, giving way to an again-circular mark depicting the Rock of Gibraltar made up only of lines in varying thickness. A 1990 “compromise” in design meant returning to the original rock depiction, but keeping the simplicity of the ’84 mark with important trimming of details to fit the modern era.
Branding lessons from this period
- Originality becomes more important as more companies come into existence in the 18th century; the need for originality opens the door for complex, detailed designs that eventually become more simplified and similar to logos we know today in the 19th century
- Simplicity reigns king from the mid-19th century into modern day, with functional benefits like ease of printing, placement on promotional items (t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, etc.), and logo use on social media
The concept remains the same
Could King Henry III have envisioned how drastic the evolution of logos and branding concepts he first enacted in 1266 would be over the coming centuries?
The digital landscape has certainly been a driving force in the evolution of logos in recent decades, but the concept has remained the same through the ages: Logos protect customers from poor quality by helping them identify their preferred brands and makers, and they protect businesses and brands by differentiating them from impostors and knock-offs.
In short, logos give a ‘face’ to brands and help customers make buying decisions. Next time you see a logo that catches your eye, think back to the first bread and beer product markings from the 13th century that laid the foundation for the branding of today – we’ve come a long way, and the story’s not finished yet.