Birth of the U.S. Route Shield

Just like the highways, the signs that pass along them have a glorious past. And among these historic signs is the U.S. route marker that is as nostalgic as the popular Route 66. The story of the U.S. route marker is not free from twists and turns. Continuous changes in its design, text, shape, and more led to discarding of a huge number of route signs that are now vintage collectibles. This is the story of how the U.S. route marker was born.

On June 29, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower passed a bill which aimed to create a 41,000 mile highway connecting different states in the country for a “speedy, safe transcontinental travel” [Source: history.com].

The interstate highways now needed a uniform marker that distinguished the elaborate network of roads from other routes. In August 1957, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO), announced the numbering system for the interstate highways and unveiled the red, white, and blue interstate shield. But even before the biggest construction project in the American history was undertaken, the use of U.S. shield as the official interstate route marker could be seen on the road.

How was the Interstate Shield Born?

How the interstate route marker went from this to that.

How the interstate route marker went from this to that. [Image:shields.AAroads.com]

During 1910’s, the Interstate roads were largely neglected by the government which led to the formation of trail associations who took it upon themselves to popularize a trail or route, slap a name on it and published guides and newsletters to promote it. However, owing to the confusioncreated by these names, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways, on April 20, 1925, decided that numbers were a preferred method of demarcating these interstate routes.

It was the same day that the preliminary design for the Interstate sign was proposed. Board member, Leo Boulay of Ohio suggested the official U.S. seal be used with ‘U.S.A.’ written on it. The idea was unanimously favored by the members.

Following an early debate on different color schemes that offered better visibility among other things, the use of white for the shield was agreed upon. Colonel Frederick S. Greene of New York recommended putting a black border around the white sign and remarked that “it acts perfectly” [Source: us-highways.com]. However, he showed disagreement in using U.S.A. and alternatively suggested “T.C” (to be designated on the black and white shield), T.C here stood for ‘Trans-Continental’. By the end of the first day, the Joint Board favored Boulay’s recommendation of including “U.S.” on the sign.

The next day during the final afternoon session, the committee took to matter, employing a marker on the shield to offer uniformity across the highway signs. Board member Frank F. Rogers said, “Each State should have the right to insert the name of the State in the upper part of the shield to be adopted.” [Source: fhwa.dot.gov]. Rogers then presented to the board, a drawing of what the US highway shield would look like. The design was approved by all members of the board and samples of the design were sent to all states for comment.

The shield was discussed again on August 3 where a debate regarding the inclusion of state’s name ensued. The next day, the idea of US shield with the state name was approved, following the motion of Robert M. Morton of California.

The original design appeared in the first edition of the Manual and Specifications for the Manufacture, Display, and Erection of U.S. Standard Road Markers and Signs, predecessor to the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control) published by AASHO in 1927. The sign was 16 inches tall and 16.5 inches wide. The text was black on a white background surrounded by a 3/8 inch thick black border. A crossbar separated the state’s name (2 inches high) from the letter “U.S.” (2 inches high) and the route number (5 inches tall).

U.S. standard route marker as published by AASHO in 1927

U.S. standard route marker as published by AASHO in 1927

Variations in the U.S. Route Shield

  • 1943 saw a major change in the U.S. route sign. The Ohio MUTCD published in 1943 recommended the use of the M-101, replacing the traditional cut-out shield with an outline of a US marker on a white background on a square sign.
  • In 1950, Illinois introduced a new design which retained the state’s name above the crossbar but removed the letters “U.S.” below it, using larger numerals on the sign.
  • 1953, AASHO insisted that states put back the “U.S” on the sign. This led to a further change in the sign when Ohio along with many eastern states decided to put the abbreviated versions of the state and the letters “U.S.” on the top of the sign and removed the crossbar altogether. Examples include OHIO-US, CONN-US, D.C.-US etc. States like Florida also dabbled with the color of the shield, using colors like orange for US-41 and yellow for US-301. But the FDOT retracted to black and white signs owing to the heavy expenses incurred on making colored signs.
  • The current US route shield takes its design cues from the 1971 MUTCD where the shield outline is slightly different from the 1961 version, making more room for white space within the shield.

 

A snippet from the 1948 Manual of Uniform Traffic Control and Devices

Original 1940s OHIO road shield sign route (Image source: Ebay]

As has happened with a number of other traffic and road signs, continuous revision rendered the old U.S. route signs obsolete. Although these signs added nothing of value to the government, they are an object of affection of vintage road sign collectors who spend a considerable amount of money for a piece of history; and historians who can get a glimpse of the past through these signs. For those with shallow pockets who love highway signs for the nostalgic value they add, there are unlimited choices in the way of novelty signs. Many of such signs can be found on eBay, etsy, and other online stores.

 

 

“The affection for the old road along the interstate is such that the states along the route have to protect the remaining original US shields from souvenir hunters and collectors.”  [Source: us-highways.com]

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