the history of street signs

From New York's standard white and green to the black and white of our hometown, San Francisco, street signs are an iconic fixture on our roads and sidewalks. We'll explain how signs evolved from the 2-ton monoliths of the Roman Empire to the sleek signs of modern-day Main Street.

street sign history: an esurance infographic

road signs BC (before cars)

Long before rush-hour traffic, humans were using well-traveled roads and trading routes to get from A to B quickly and efficiently.

The first major milestones: all roads led to (or from) Rome

What better way to celebrate a military triumph than by paving a new road? Rome built its famous highways to consolidate its expanding power.

At the height of the Roman Empire, the Caesars ordered the construction of 4,400-pound stone markers called milestones. These were numbered and placed at specific intervals along the 62,000 miles of Roman roads, which also featured rest stops and service stations for passing armies and travelers.

How the Romans transported the markers from quarries remains a tantalizing mystery.

Fun fact: The zero point of all Roman roads was called the Milliarium Aureum. This milestone marked the beginning of all roads (hence the phrase "all roads lead to Rome") and was located in the central forum of the empire's capital.

Europeans develop a smart naming convention

In the late Middle Ages, roads were named after the towns they led to. Signs posted at intersections marked the directions and the distance remaining to certain towns. A 1648 law in Britain required each parish to erect guide posts.

The emergence of cyclists and velocipedes

Baron Von Drais is credited with inventing the forerunner to today's bicycle in 1817. It was essentially the Flintstones' car of bicycles. Pedals were added to a similar device — called a velocipede, or "boneshaker" — in 1865. From there, a series of technological developments conspired to allow cyclists to travel faster and farther.

In Europe, in particular, friendly cycling organizations and local authorities began posting signs to warn cyclists of dangerous turns and steep hills. In England alone, an estimated 4,000 warning signs were posted in the second half of the 19th century.

Fun fact: Skull-and-crossbone signs ominously warned cyclists of steep hills in 19th-century England.

the evolution of early U.S. road signs AC (after cars)

Soon after horseless carriages made their debut, drivers were getting lost because of the lack of directional signs on new roads. Drivers formed clubs as early as 1899 and made it their mission to place and maintain helpful street signs. Some clever entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to point drivers toward their own establishments.

In 1915, the very first stop sign appeared in Detroit. Interestingly, this was one year after the first electric traffic signal, which was erected in Cleveland. The first 3-color traffic signal appeared just 5 years later.

Standardizing road signs

In 1922, representatives from Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota toured several states in order to generate ideas for uniform signs and street markings. They made it their goal to develop a system that matched unique shapes to specific messages:

  • Round — Railroad crossing
  • Octagon — Stop sign
  • Diamond — Curve ahead
  • Square — Caution or attention
  • Rectangle — Mileage and speed limit signs

This would make signs more helpful in the nighttime, especially as drivers could identify shapes before reading the signs' words.

All signs would be black text on a white background and 2 square feet in size.

These recommendations were presented in January 1923 to the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments and later to the American Association of State Highway Officials. They became the basis for the earliest national standardization, which was made official in 1935.

A few decades of earnest confusion followed. It wasn't until 1948 that the United States government made a concerted effort to simplify and standardize each sign.

Fun fact: Stop signs were initially black and white, then yellow on red. The invention of new fade-resistant material led to the adaptation of the now-iconic white-on-red stop signs in 1954.

traffic signals go high tech

It's interesting to note that in less than a century, the street signs we now take for granted were conceived of, tested, and adapted across the U.S. Some routine features, like yellow lines that separate traffic, are as recent as the 1970s.

Street signs are continually evolving. Modern technology allows computerized, electronic signs to give drivers timely detour info, construction work advisories, and other important traffic news. They can even tell you how long it will take to get to a specific location in current conditions.

At the same time, pedestrians who are disabled or have difficulty reading benefit from "talking signs" now found at many crosswalks and intersections. Bicycle lanes and HOV lanes also require unique, consistent signage throughout the country.

How to keep up?

Luckily for us, the Department of Transportation constantly updates the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) to make sure all states are using the same signs, shapes, words, letters, and colors.

signs of things to come

The good people behind the MUTCD must have their worries about what the future will bring. Especially if that future involves flying cars and hover-signs.

But unlike the driving pioneers of 100 years ago, we can expect the signs of the future to match across town and state lines. That means no surprises and less room for misinterpretation — in other words, fewer accidents.

With that in mind, a friendly tip o' the insurer's cap to you, keepers of the MUTCD.

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