There are many ways to define what a logo is.
Some people will say that the logo may be the signature of an architect on an Egyptian pyramid. Others may argue that flags, crests, shields, and banners are the first logos. Which is quite reasonable, given that the emblem appears in the modern classification of logos.
On the other hand, we must consider that the oldest logos obviously have not survived the passage of time. For example, there are historical accounts of Egyptian and Phoenician merchants who identified their shipments. But we don’t have an image, or even a name.
Further back in time, in Ancient Rome, some ruins contain vestiges of advertisements, some of them very creative. They can be seen mostly in Pompeii and Herculaneum since they survived under the ashes of the lava of the Etna volcano until they were discovered in modern times.
Personally, walking through the streets of Ostia Antica (which also survived by being buried under the sand of the sea) I thought I saw what the first logo might have been: a tavern with an image that represented a “brand”. However, there was no name, and it was unclear whether it was an identification or simply a decorative object.
And a little more here in time, we can see the first public bars (just in case: what we all know as pubs). Originally, since very few people knew how to read, they identified with some image (just like my tavern in Ostia Antica). They referred to a geographical accident in the vicinity, or the fief to which they belonged, or the heraldry of said fief. Thus, Sean’s Bar in Athlone, Ireland dates from 900 AD. However, there is no evidence that this was its original name, or that it had any kind of visual identifier. Certainly not the current one!
Conditions to define the oldest logos or brands in history
So, it is necessary to define certain conditions to define which is the oldest logo in history of which we have certain reference. In other words: there must be some kind of visual documentation.
To do this, we arbitrarily define the following conditions:
Must have a business object
The logo must have a commercial object. Thus, it cannot be part of a military, governmental or religious organization, or the signature or identification of an artist or craftsman. In other words: it must be a brand.
The logos must have a visual identifier
The logo must be properly a logo, as we know it today. In other words: there must be a visual identifier, and an intention to create a brand. Which implies that it cannot be just a story in a history book, but there must be visual evidence.
The logos must have a brand name
As in the dubious Ostia Antica example, the visual identifier must have a name. Which means that the visual identifier is not enough (which would enter the list of creators of varied swords and weapons that used to add some type of visual identification element to their creations). Rather, there must be a visual identifier AND a brand name
And the 3 oldest brands in history are …
Third Place: Dutch East India Company
The Dutch East India Company, officially the United East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie; VOC), was a megacorporation founded by a government-directed amalgamation of several rival Dutch trading companies (voorcompagnieën) in the early 17th century. It was established on 20 March 1602, as a chartered company to trade with Mughal India. The company was a transcontinental employer and a corporate pioneer of outward foreign direct investment at the dawn of modern capitalism. In the early 1600s, by widely issuing bonds and shares of stock to the general public, VOC became the world’s first formally listed public company.
The Dutch East India Company or VOC was a pioneer on many things. Including having a brand and a logo! Not only that: they used that logo in a wide variety of uses and applications, including a flag and even their own currency issue
Despite the dark history surrounding this company (which was not exceptional at the time), it can be said that VOC was the first in many things that we consider part of everyday’s life today.
Second (arguable) place: Stella Artois brand
Stella Artois is supposedly one of the oldest brands out there, but this is not entirely true. The Stella Artois brand is actually from the 20th century. Artois (without the word Stella) was created in 1717, and the original brand prior to Artois was Den Hoorn (The Horn), a factory that dated back to 1366 and had a horn as its visual identifier.
That is why the current logo, designed in 1988, includes the words “Anno 1366” (Year 1366) and the horn, as we can see in the following image.
Besides the name Stella Artois is very modern, there is no description of the original logo, but it is supposedly the horn seen in the next photo.
Since it is not our intention to dispute historical data, we will consider this to be the second oldest logo that we know of. And no, it is not the oldest as many say!
First place: Liu’s Fine Needle Shop
Liu’s Fine Needle Shop is undeniably old, and meets all of the aforementioned conditions. But also, it is one of the first examples of branding! The logo was found engraved on a bronze plate, which was evidently used to stamp large-scale advertising messages.
The discovery in China of this plaque dated to the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) is perhaps the oldest piece of what in the 20th century would be the advertising revolution. The plaque includes a rabbit as a visual identifier, the name Liu’s Fine Needle Shop and the following advertising claim:
“We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.”
As said above, it was used to create prints in massive scale. Here you can see the result of such branding efforts (and perhaps the first documented printed advertising pieces?)
I do not know about you, but unless they show me that there was an example older than that of our friend Liu, I believe that this logo and its original and unknown designer should have a place next to the greatest designers in history.
Conclusion: Is there an older logo or brand?
This research on logos and brands is based on documentation, bibliography and personal experiences. I hope it will inspire other designers and / or historians to conduct deeper research into what is now a fundamental part of our economy and our lives.