Vintage Traffic Signs  

A short history of sign production

Early No Parking Signs
Early signs �like this no parking sign �lacked reflective film, which is now an essential safety feature.
Road markers date back to the Roman Empire, where pillars carved from stone (milestones) delineated traveling distance. The same convention is still in place, with new materials. While it was quite common for street signs to be made of wood or carved directly into the façade of city buildings in the early 20th century, the development of automobile traffic has made metal signage the standard.

In the early 1900s, it was not unusual for state and federal signage contracts to be filled by state penitentiaries. Production of street signs, license plates and even the highways themselves fell to inexpensive convict labor. The practice was fundamentally stifled when legislation during the Great Depression limited the sale of convict-made goods in order to bolster the free market. The practice resumed and still exists today, but there is significant competition from private sign manufacturing companies.

The first standardized, octagonal stop signs became a common sight in the late 1920s and early 30s. While some rarer versions of this early sign were coated in colored porcelain, most were simply fashioned out of painted steel (most commonly yellow with black lettering), and zinc-coated to prevent rust. The shape of regulation street signs was heavily influenced by the frugality of the period, directly linked to the cost of the metals being used. Circular or octagonal signs produced more scrap metal waste, so those shapes were reserved for only the most crucial signage like railroad crossing signs and stop signs.

After the US entered World War II in 1941, shortages in both steel and aluminum, used in the production of wartime goods from canteens to naval craft, resulted in signs made of plywood with painted rather than embossed lettering. Until the Japanese surrendered in 1945 and US steel production returned to pre-war levels, the plywood signs were simply periodically repainted to further conserve for the war effort. Today, regulatory signs are produced from aluminum, a lighter and more durable product that, unlike its steel cousin, is immune to rust.

During the 1930s, commerce, not just safety, drove technological advancements in road signage. As automobile traffic increased, so did the speed at which it moved. Big oil companies, breitling replicas de relogios for example, ever competing for the privilege to fill up a motorist’s hungry gas tank, saw dollar signs (pun quasi-unintentional) in creating identifiable, recognizable graphic standards that were easy to read at those unprecedented speeds (a breakneck 35 mph) �day or night.

Enter the light reflective road sign, arguably the most significant development in road signage and public safety.

The first reflective street signs were made with glass beads attached by a strong adhesive, developed in 1937 by the company we know today as 3M. Within two years, 3M was manufacturing commercially-available reflective sheeting, drastically improving visibility. While there were still some kinks to work out, it was 3M Scotchlite�Reflective Sheeting that revolutionized the traffic sign. Reflectivity continues to be a public safety hot button. As late as 2008, the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration conducted studies that explored low-cost options for increasing retro-reflectivity, further enhancing the effectiveness of stop signs and decreasing automobile fatalities.