As most Australian tradition in this area has its origin in the UK, we’ll concentrate on the history there.
Seriously old pubs
In the UK and notably in England, many pubs have an ancient history.
Various pubs argue between themselves over which can be called the oldest in the country but it’s generally accepted that some are over 800 years old. That’s direct verifiable history because some are reputed to stand on the site of earlier Anglo-Saxon alehouses which might push their history back another 300 or 400 years.
However, in the 1390s, the situation in England was getting a little out of control with pubs. They were springing up everywhere and the bureaucrats were finding it difficult to both regulate the quality of the beer being served and probably more important for them, collect the taxes. That was mainly because they didn’t know where the pubs were!
So King Richard II of England and his advisers had a brainwave. They decided to pass a law making it compulsory for the owners of ale-houses and pubs to erect a sign outside confirming that was exactly what the establishment was.
The first pub signs that we know of came into being.
The vast majority of people in the England of the Middle Ages were illiterate. So, flowing prose describing the pub and its produce would have been completely wasted.
To begin with, it’s believed that the first pub signs comprised boards upon which the landlord or owner would hang long bits and pieces of their trade, such as perhaps keg taps or other parts of beer tap systems.
It’s not clear when but soon people started to draw or paint images on those boards to indicate the name of the pub in pictorial form. So, a crude painting of say, a crossroads might have suggested that the pub was called “The Crossroads” due to a real crossroads being nearby.
In fact, some of the names of old pubs in the UK are truly ancient and hark back into dark ages history or even mythology.
Some elements of this tradition came with the early settlers from the UK but it’s probably fair to say that ornate art-work pub signs are far less commonplace in Australia than back in the UK.
There are, of course, some very ornate Australian pub signs and there is often much more use of humour and direct product advertising in our pub signs than was the case originally in Britain.
Even so, the next time you see one that catches your eye here, remember that this is part of a very ancient tradition!