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Evolution of the American Stop Sign

June 13, 2019

American motorists often take traffic signs for granted, assuming they’ve always been around. One of the reasons signs are so influential at affecting traffic is precisely because people have never known a time when they didn’t exist. These signs are so engrained in culture that they are as much a part of the scenery as mountains, trees, and bodies of water. Here’s a brief history of the American stop sign and how it has changed over the years.

It Began in the Motor City

Detroit, nicknamed the Motor City due to being the home of the big three automakers, was where the first stop sign was placed in 1915. The black letters were printed on a white sheet of metal. Some people may be surprised that early stop signs weren’t necessarily red. In fact, they featured various colors. By 1922 there were several stop signs in Detroit, which is when a committee took action to decide on a standard design for the stop sign. This was when the octagon shape was implemented. These signs also featured black lettering on white backgrounds.

Yellow was the standard color that meant “stop” through the late 1920s, according to the MUTCD’s Manual of Traffic Signs. The reason yellow was used stemmed from its brightness day or night, unlike red, which was not as visible at night.

In 1930 a newly formed organization called the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety (NCSHS) published the “Manual on Street Control Signs, Signals, and Markings,” which suggested that stop signs be 18″ x 18″ in size with red letters on a yellow background. Then in 1935 a new organization known as the Joint Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices released its “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways.” The shape remained an octagon as the size grew to 24″ x 24″ and the lettering color became red or black on a yellow background.

Soon “cat-eye” reflectors were added to stop signs and by 1948 MUTCD required this innovation on all regulatory and warning signs.

Switching to Red Stop Signs

Although red lights were used for traffic lights to mean “stop,” yellow remained the standard color for stop signs until 1954. That was the year MUTCD mandated that stop signs shift to red backgrounds with white lettering after sign manufacturers had developed red fade-resistant signs. Additionally, the height of stop signs in rural areas was raised from 2.5 feet to 5 feet. Starting in 1961 MUTCD raised signs up to 7 feet in urban areas.

From 1954 on red has been the universal traffic color that means “stop.” Switching to red meant the stop sign was now a regulatory sign rather than a warning sign. In 1966 Congress put MUTCD in charge of standardizing all traffic control devices on open public roads. By the late seventies the manual’s minimum requirements for stop signs were 5 to 7 feet tall, 30″ x 30″ with an octagaon shape, a red background, a white border and white lettering; in other words, it’s the familiar stop sign that we all know and love and most importantly, can identify from at least 200 feet away.


Everyone knows “red” means “stop,” even though this regulation has only been in place across America since the middle of last century. Meeting MUTCD standards is essential for all traffic signmakers. Contact Zumar at our Arizona, California or Washington location to learn more about how we can design stop signs based on federal requirements.

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