Fascinating stories behind the world’s oldest logos

Written by Jacopo Prisco, CNN

The oldest registered trademark in the United States dates back to 1870, when it was registered by the paint manufacturer Averill. In the Chicago context, an eagle is depicted holding a brush in its beak. The words “Sustainable, Beautiful, Economical” appear in a banner. It has, to modern eyes, a very quaint feel.

Five years later, the English brewery Bass Brewery registered the first European brand, a simple red triangle which, in comparison, seems contemporary. It can even be spotted on beer bottles appearing in paintings by Édouard Manet and Pablo Picasso, and still serves as the Bass logo to this day.

These two very disparate designs, set just a few years apart, beautifully capture the eclectic essence of logo design.

And while rudimentary logos — such as those appearing on ancient Greek pottery — had already been around for thousands of years, modern logo design began as recently as the mid-19th century, said Jens Müller, author of “Logo Beginnings”, a new book that chronicles the early history of logos.

This 1930 Louis Vuitton ad shows how deliberately the company used the interlocking letter logo, which was created in 1890. Credit: Courtesy of Taschen

“It starts in the 1850s, with industrialization and branding,” Müller said in a phone interview.

It was during this time, Müller added, that trade in manufactured goods began to overtake regional distribution. Logos emerged as a necessity to identify, distinguish and elevate a product from its competitors, or to tell its story and provenance. Once trademarks and the symbols used to represent them emerged, efforts to legally protect them from imitation soon followed.

Curiously, the first two trademarks from America and Europe also represent the two most basic types of logos: figurative and abstract. Each logo can be assigned to one of these groups, according to Müller, although many subcategories also exist.

A wordmark is a type of logo consisting exclusively of text, such as a company name or monogram. Other types of logos include the emblem, an often circular arrangement of stamp-like images and text, like the BMW logo; the mascot, image of a character representing the brand, such as the KFC logo; and the pictorial mark, which is based on an icon or similar graphic element, such as the Apple logo.

Paint maker Averill's original logo (top) was the first trademark registered in the United States, in 1970. British beer producer Bass registered the first European trademark in 1875, and the red triangle it contained still found in the current logo (bottom).

Paint maker Averill’s original logo (top) was the first trademark registered in the United States, in 1970. British beer producer Bass registered the first European trademark in 1875, and the red triangle it contained still found in the current logo (bottom). Credit: Courtesy of Taschen

“You could say that in general there are about 25 to 30 categories that all logos fit into, whether they were created in 1870 or 2021,” Müller said.

To reach this conclusion, Müller sifted through nearly 10,000 logos. “One thing I didn’t expect was the high number of handwritten wordmarks, like a company founder’s signature. The most famous are the Ford or Kellogg’s logo, which are still used today. in their original form.”

Iconic branding

Perhaps the most famous wordmark logo is that of Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886 and designed in Spencerian script – a popular writing style at the time – by Frank M. Robinson. Robinson was the accountant and business partner of the drink’s inventor, John S. Pemberton. It survives virtually unchanged and was trademarked in 1893, when the words “trademark” were added to the long tail of the first “C”.

This explicit reminder was right to exist: the Coca-Cola logo was soon to be besieged by imitators. In 1923, the company issued a compendium of court orders against competitors who had created similar logos for their products. It had 700 pages.

“Logo Beginnings,” available in Europe with a US release slated for March, tells the story of the early days of logos. Credit: Courtesy of Taschen

By this time, the importance of branding and logos had become apparent. A 1930 Louis Vuitton advertisement is dominated by the “LV” brand itself, with the two letters surrounding an image of several pieces of luggage lined up in a similar configuration. “It’s a great example of a company that learned early on the importance of branding and that they could simply sell their products better with their iconic branding,” Müller said. “This dates back to years before the golden age of advertising (1960s to 1980s), but it shows how companies were beginning to realize that much of their value came from brands and logo design.”

Minimalist design

A major trend in the history of logo design is the shift from ornate figurative marks to a more deliberately reduced and streamlined aesthetic – although this only started in the early 20th century.

A classic example of this rationalization is the logo of the American multinational 3M, well known for its Post-It and Scotch tape brands. The company’s full name is “Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company”, which was reflected in its early logos, before being shortened to “3-M” in the early 1900s. In 1977, the New York agency Siegel+Gale made the logo even simpler, using the ever-popular Helvetica font and the color red to design the version of the logo that is still used today.

A 1921 advertisement for French tire manufacturer Michelin, featuring the brand's character

A 1921 advertisement for the French tire manufacturer Michelin, featuring the brand character “Bibendum”, still in use today. Credit: Courtesy of Taschen

“It’s a good example of logo modernism, but also of branding that really boiled down to the most minimalist design,” Müller said.

Müller says wordmarks are still very popular today because they can help avoid confusion in a world cluttered with too many logos. “Many companies now prefer to use their name as a brand image, rather than an abstract design, so the likelihood of someone raising their hand and saying ‘We have the same logo’ is lower.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the logo design is that it defies a clear narrative, Müller said: “I think the fact that there isn’t (just) one way to evolve is perhaps why there hasn’t been a book like this before – because it’s hard to tell this story in a very precise way.”

“The beginnings of the logo”, published by Taschenis available in Europe and the United States.

Top image: The General Electrics logo, unchanged to this day, is drawn on a building at the New York World’s Fair, ca. 1935-45.

Comments are closed.