History of Signs

The history of signage is as old as the history of the human race. It predates even written language. And with such a long history, there’s bound to be at least a few interesting facts and stories in there. So let us discuss some fun facts about the history of signs.

The history of signs

Some of our earliest signs date back thousands of years to when Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon people were making signs –and art– on cave walls. But let us begin with signage that will be more familiar to us today. Road signs. Did you ever wonder how road signs got to be the way they are today? 

Standardizing road signs

The first vehicle that we would recognize as a modern automobile was invented in 1886. In 1908, the Ford Model T made cars far more accessible to the American public. However, it was not until 1922 that the United States took the first real step towards standardizing road signs. 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. Inherently, we all know this, but few of us really think about it long enough to realize it consciously. But yes, all road signs come in different shapes and, yes, this is intentional.

The road to standardization

This group of state representatives also wanted a standard use of font. All signs would feature black text on a white background and be two square feet in size. “But wait”, you say, “not all road signs have black text on white backgrounds”. Well, don’t worry, we’re getting to that.

These recommendations were presented in January 1923 to the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments, and then later on to the American Association of State Highway Officials. These associations took on the group’s recommendations, and these new standard rules became the basis for the earliest national standardization, which was made official in 1935.

However, there were still some bumpy roads ahead for standardization. Indeed, a few decades of earnest confusion followed the earliest attempts at national standardization. It wasn’t until 1948 that the United States government made a concerted effort to simplify and standardize each sign.

The stop sign

And this brings us back to the stop sign. Stop signs were initially black and white, as the first panel of representatives recommended. However, later on, stop signs became yellow on red. It was not until the invention of new fade-resistant material allowed for the adaptation of the now iconic white-on-red stop signs in 1954. And since that time, much of the world has followed America’s lead with regard to signage. All over the world, you can find white-on-red octagonal stop sign, including Europe where many non-English speaking countries still choose to use the English spelling of “stop”.

Signs of Success

If this little trip through history has whet your appetite for signage of your own, please contact us today!

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