Vintage Traffic Signs  

Pre-MUTCD traffic signs

MUTCD Standardized Signs
Signs like these were challenging to read while driving – one reason the MUTCD standardized signage.
In the early days of traffic snarls, it was a group of cyclists – the League of American Wheelmen – not government entities, who began pushing for better roadways and clearer traffic signage. By the turn of the century, there were about 8,000 automobiles on US roads, concentrated in major cities, and, for the most part, owned by the wealthy as means of entertainment and convenience. As automobiles increased in popularity, local independent auto clubs (predecessors to today’s AAA) sprang into action, posting helpful road signs with driving distances to various locations. These road signs were, in effect, the first step toward traffic control in the United States.

While the intention was good, competition between local auto clubs often meant that individual organizations insisted on posting their own versions of signage. Not uniform in shape, size or color (some were merely colored bands around utility poles), these early attempts only created more confusion. According to records kept by the Federal Highway Administration, it was possible, if not commonplace, to encounter as many as 11 different sign conventions on any given stretch of road.

The type of information available to motorists also differed by location. While California’s yellow, diamond-shaped signs served as distance indicators, the Wisconsin Motorists Association went so far as to design signs that labeled which service stations they approved along motorist routes ( Still, the vast majority of official signage was posted for the purposes of convenience rather than safety. And the farther a motorist traveled, the more likely he was to encounter unfamiliar signage.

Without oversight or standardization, various traffic control measures began popping up across the country in cities with higher automobile populations. Cleveland became home to the first electric traffic signal (interestingly, not St. Louis, home to the country’s first recorded traffic accident).The first real stop sign, conceived by William Phelps Eno (glamorously nicknamed “the father of traffic control”) debuted in Detroit, Michigan in 1915 – a full decade after the haphazard mile-marker signposts began appearing. Eno’s stop sign was black and white. It wasn’t until 1924 that the American Association of Highway Officials (now the AASHTO) decided that some uniformity was in order and established regulations for sign shapes and colors (resulting in yellow STOP signs – still not the familiar red octagon we know today).

No Parking Vintage Signs
This parking sign would go unnoticed today – it is not made of reflective material, nor does the sign’s wording contrast with its background. The sign may have been ignored when it was manufactured, anyway – before cars were as commonplace as they are now, obeying property owners’ requests may have had more to do with social convention and politesse than law.
The variety of these early traffic signs (in both color and materials) make them coveted collector’s items. Rarer finds include vintage yellow STOP signs, fashioned from porcelain and reflective glass marbles,which can fetch as much as $1,000 at auction. In 1906, Woodrow Wilson (president of Princeton University at the time) famously claimed that of all the menaces of his day, “the worst is the reckless driving of automobiles." Certainly, road recklessness was compounded by the lack of consistent or clearly marked rules of the road. The development of traffic signage, like Eno’s stop sign and warning signs indicating railroad crossings, only became standards after 1925. Statistics compiled by the US Bureau of Transportation show that motor vehicle fatality rates (per miles traveled, not per capita) have been steadily declining since the 1920s.This is partially owed to continued improvements in infrastructure, of which traffic control is a significant aspect.