12 things you need to know about vintage road/traffic signs

By Antoinette Rahn

When did you last think about traffic/road signs? They dot the roadways and highways you traverse each day but are not a trendy topic. However, in looking at some vintage examples they certainly should be. Mecum Auctions‘ upcoming Road Art Auction, Oct. 18-21, brought to mind road/traffic signs. 

Emergence of Ancient Road/Traffic Signs

Vintage stop sign with glass bead reflectors

Vintage red metal stop sign with clear glass beads for reflectors – originally erected by the Automobile Club of Southern California – sold for $250 during a July 2016 auction presented by Mecum Auctions. (Photo courtesy Mecum Auctions)

1 The road/traffic signs we see today evolved from humble, but helpful beginnings. It began with carved stone (in some instances marble) milestones erected in ancient Rome. The first example of the Roman milestones was the Milliarium Aureum. This column served as the central point from which all primary roads in Rome radiated. Roman milestones came about as means of measuring distance and relation to primary locations. This made sense since the space between two milestones was typically a mile.

2 A must-visit destination for anyone with a love of road/traffic signs, and signs, in general, is the American Sign Museum, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Within the 20,000-square-foot museum are examples representing 100 years of American signage. In addition to road signs, the Museum boasts thousands of examples of road art and vintage advertising signs.

3 Lack of consistency among traffic and road signs caused more challenges than conformity when it came to American road travel in the early 20th century. In 1935 publishing of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways took place. The manual’s role is to standardize travel signs and control traffic mobility. Elements of this Manual remain active within American travel yet today. The unveiling of the Manual (MUTCD) took place the same year a gallon of gas cost 10 cents. This fact comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation website.

Evolution of Road Sign Effectiveness 

4 Although the invention of the automobile certainly prompted a boom in road sign creation within

Idaho Highway 36 vintage road/traffic sign

Single-sided Highway 36 sign posted in Idaho commanded a staggering $2,500 during a January 2017 auction through Mecum Auctions (Photo courtesy Mecum Auctions)

the U.S., the earliest process for creating road signs came out of Germany. The procedure for producing porcelain enamel signs included flattening a piece of iron. Then a coating of powdered glass takes place, followed by firing it in a kiln. Porcelain enamel signs date back to Germany before the turn of the 20th century.

5 Long before the 21st century, popular practice of ‘bedazzling’ items with shiny glass beads, the early generation of road traffic signs featured beads for reflectiveness. It’s reported the revolutionary invention of an adhesive in 1937 by the 3M company led to the production of reflective road signs featuring glass beads attached to signs using the adhesive. Two years later, 3M came out with retroreflective sheeting, changing the presentation and effectiveness of traffic road signs for generations.

6 An on-going effort of the American Sign Museum is the Save Old Signs (SOS) initiative. The effort involves tracking preservation projects and legislation involving signs. SOS also aids in listing endangered sign movements. Plus, participants often share sign stories. View the Museum’s archive online at www.americansignmuseum.org.

Appeal of Pre-War Signs

Rusted Route 66 sign

Rusted New Mexico U.S. Route 66 sign realized $325 during a 2016 auction presented by North American Auction Co. (Photo courtesy North American Auction Co.)

7 Pre-war American road signs are among the most sought-after and elusive, according to David Purvis, director of the road art division of Mecum Auctions (www.mecum.com). Purvis’ own appreciation of signs, road art, and classic vehicles was forged early in life. It began with spending time at his father’s car museum. The limited availability of early 20th-century road signs is due to most retired signs being scrapped for metal to use in the war effort, Purvis adds. The limited-availability contributes to increased secondary-market values for road signs manufactured in the 1920s and 1930s.

8 Early in American road/traffic sign history, the majority of sign production (and automotive license plates) took place in state penitentiaries. The practice of federally contracted signs produced by inmates ceased during the Great Depression. According to some reports, it was in an effort to strengthen the private business sector. Eventually, the practice was renewed and is in use in some U.S. states today.

9 Automobile clubs across the nation spearheaded the placement of road signs on the nation’s highways and byways. According to the Allstate Insurance blog, in 1905 the Buffalo Automobile Club put forth a series of road/traffic signs across New York state. The Automobile Club of California began placing sings in 13 counties, beginning in 1906.

Psychology of Signage Shape and Color 

10 The shape and color of road/traffic signs is not a matter of happenstance or highway departments getting a great deal at the paint store, it’s tied to the psychological reaction, according to Dr. David Cowell. The findings of this psychologist specializing in the impact of color on the brain, is reported by BBC News. For example, Dr. Cowell states the colors orange and yellow “suggest a positive future.” This is meant to encourage drivers to look forward to traveling beyond a construction zone. In terms of shapes, rectangular signs have the appearance of an open book – serving as a source of information, while triangular signs – with their sharp points indicate danger, and for that reason are often used for road signs with warnings.

11 Vintage road signs related to U.S. Route 66 are among the most popular within the collectible road/traffic sign market. November 1926 marks the opening of the highway, but the road signs didn’t appear along the original 2,400-mile route until 1927, according to Route66World.com. Often the familiar black-and-white shield-shaped road signs would include the state name above the 66. Although the iconic Route 66 was formally decommissioned in 1985, various segments of the historic roadway continue to welcome travelers.

12 Acquiring vintage road signs is a treasure-hunt adventure to be enjoyed at flea markets, collector shows (petroliana and advertising shows are great places to start), online bidding and selling sites including eBay, Etsy, Ruby Lane, Bonanza, etc., and at auctions. A selection of road signs is present in the 1,600-plus lots in Mecum Auctions’ 2nd Annual Road Art Fall Premiere Auction, Oct. 18-21, in Elkhorn, Wis.

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