CC Newspaper Clippings: Evolution of Street Signs

About 10 or 15 years ago, I was at a garage sale, and I found these large manila envelopes containing magazine and newspaper clippings related to antique cars . . .

There must be over 100 articles, apparently collected by an old car enthusiast who was active in the mid-1950s.  His area of interest spanned from the earliest cars c. 1900 to the classics of the ’30s, but there were lots of general automotive articles from the time as well.  He must have lived in or near Detroit, Michigan because many of the articles are from the Detroit Free Press.  So I picked out this one article which hasn’t seen the light of day in over 60 years and decided to share it with you.

The article entitled “There’s a Cycle In Street-Sign Fashions, Too” is from the April 24, 1955 edition of the Detroit Free Press Roto Magazine.  It reports that the city of Detroit is currently replacing all its old stop signs with modern ones of uniform design.  The first stop signs were put up beginning in 1923 (some sources say the first one was from 1915), and they were of various shapes and colors.  Interestingly enough, it was not the city or state government that created and installed the early signs, but the American Automobile Association (a private entity)!  Starting in 1906, regional AAA clubs began paying for and installing wooden signs to help motorists find their way.  The AAA apparently did this out of goodwill and to assist fellow motorists.  To me, this raises questions about jurisdiction and enforcement–does a municipal police officer have the right to give you a ticket for failing to obey a sign on a public street that was put up by a private organization?  I’m assuming that there must have been some collaboration with local governmental authorities.

Ahh, the good old days! Imagine–you could join the AAA, design some road signs the way you want them, go out and put them up wherever you think they should be along the roadside, and AAA covers the expenses. And everybody will follow or obey your sign. Was it really that simple?  (Source: YourAAA Daily)


W. B. Bachman, membership director of the Automobile Club of Detroit. He designed and supervised the posting of the first 12,000 stop signs in Detroit and Michigan in 1923.


One of the earliest stop signs.


Same intersection in 1955, showing one of the new red octagon signs which are so familiar today. This design has lasted 66 years without change.


Ledyard and Second today. The stop sign remains, but most previously existing buildings are gone. The city streets, once bustling with traffic, are strangely deserted.  (Source:  Google Street Views)


One block down, at Ledyard and Third. This stop sign was yellow and black, and was about to be replaced.


Ledyard and Third today. Victorian house in the background is gone, as are most of the buildings in downtown Detroit that would have existed in the mid-20th century.  (Source:  Google Street Views)


More lost Detroit Victorians. The beauty of some streets rivaled those of famous European capitals. All have been destroyed.


Such morbid signs–one shaped like a coffin;  the other warns of killing children.  Did the famous octagon shape evolve from a coffin?


Here’s a sign near me–this weathered artifact is still in service. I would guess it’s earlier than 1950.


Continuing the AAA tradition of making your own street signs, this homemade sign for Sycamore Lane has been in service for several decades with no municipal replacement.


Someone made his own speed limit sign–5 MPH. I’m sure it’s strictly enforced.


In the 1970s, maybe into the 1980s, there was a program where certain parents and other “nice” adults would volunteer to have a “red hand” sign placed in a front window of their house. Children at school were told that if they were ever in trouble to go to houses with the red hand visible, and there they would receive help. As far as I know, this program was eventually abandoned and forgotten. The children originally “protected” are now in their 40s and 50s, but this road sign remains. Does anyone else remember this?


So thanks to an anonymous Free Press reporter and an unknown car enthusiast who liked to save newspaper articles, this story gains new life.  Which just shows how the small, seemingly ephemeral works we create today can reverberate decades, perhaps even centuries in the future.  I think it’s interesting that so many road sign forms (STOP, ONE WAY, etc.) that were conceived 60 or more years ago have continued unchanged.  That’s a pretty long run for any designed product.

QOTD:  Do you know of any sign(s) that are long out-of-date yet are still in use?  Any homemade ones?