Back to Blog

History of Street Signs

October 8, 2018

Without street signs, it would be much easier to get lost and navigation would require far more guesswork. However, street signs have existed in some capacity for most of recorded human history. Milestone markers that measured travel distance date back to Roman times, and signs with the names of roads and intersections became common in Europe during the Middle Ages. Here are some major developments in the history of street signs:

Street Planning

The idea of a planned city existed centuries before automobiles became popular. The concept of a street grid as the foundation of a city dates back thousands of years. In the 5th century B.C., Ancient Greeks made the traffic grid a mainstay in society. Grid development expanded throughout Europe during the 17th century’s Renaissance era.

Despite these developments, not all early American cities began with a grid system. For example, in the 17th century, New Haven and Philadelphia were designed around grid systems, but Boston was not. By the time cars became dominant forms of transportation in the 1960s, city planners moved away from grid systems and embraced a less congested “street hierarchy” system for new developments.

Early Automobile Era

Automobiles began to appear on city streets throughout the U.S. in the 1880s, although it wasn’t until about thirty years later that cars began to overtake horses in popularity. In the early days of street signs, streets were assigned names that often borrowed the names of famous local figures and terms that described the landscape. By the late 19th century street names expanded to include more nature-oriented themes. It was during this period that alternative names to “street” began to emerge, such as “avenue” and “boulevard.”

Automobile clubs helped spread the concept of street signs in the first decade of the twentieth century. The first electric traffic signal appeared in Cleveland in 1914, then the first stop sign was installed in Detroit the following year. The term “drive” became popular in street names starting in the 1920s.

The basis for the national standardization of street signs in America was a 1923 report of recommendations presented by officials from three states to the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments. The first manuals for U.S. standard road markers and street signs were published in 1927. Standards were made official in 1935, then simplified by federal officials in 1948.

Modern Reflective Street Signs

The invention of reflective sheeting in the 1940s made it possible for street signs to become weather-resistant thanks to transparent ink. In 1971, sign manufacturer 3M introduced an improved reflective sheeting that increased durability and brightness threefold, ushering in a new standard. The company introduced the even brighter fluorescent yellow green pedestrian sign in 1992. By 2008, the Federal Highway Administration began enforcing minimum levels of retroreflectivity for street signs, and even parking signs are required to be reflective.

Throughout human traffic history, street signs have helped reduce confusion and saved lives. For more information about street signs, call Zumar at our Arizona, California or Washington location.

Product Added

Go to Quote Request Form

Continue Product Search