Memorabilia: the history of road signs

FMM assistant curator Cheslynne Ruiters looks at the history of road signs…

Road signs are erected at the side of or above roads to give instructions or provide information to road users. The history of road signs starts with the history of roads. The Roman Empire was the first civilization to construct roads, the first being the Via Appia, or the Appian Way, built in 312 BC. Not only did the Romans build roads, they made and numbered stone markers that were placed at specific intervals alongside, thus creating the first milestones.

In 1686, the first known Traffic Regulation Act in Europe was established by King Peter II of Portugal, but the first modern road signs erected on a wide scale were designed for riders of high, or ‘ordinary’, bicycles in the late-1870s and early-1880s. These machines were fast, silent and their nature made them difficult to control, moreover their riders travelled considerable distances and often preferred to tour on unfamiliar roads. In Europe, new cycling organisations and local authorities began posting signs warning cyclists of dangerous turns and steep hills. In England, 4 000 warnings signs were posted in the late-1800s. One sign that originated from this era was a skull and crossbones design, which was a warning to cyclists of steep hills.

Then came the wonderful age of cars, and with the increased ability to travel there was also a greater opportunity to get lost. Drivers formed clubs as early as 1899, making it their mission to place and maintain street signs that offered directions. Although middle-class families could not afford cars until the 1920s, when cars were being manufactured more efficiently on assembly lines, signs were still in demand by wealthy car owners. Early signs, like those made by the American Automobile Association were composed of wood and placed on iron columns. (Many old signs were eventually used to supply metal for World War ll.) In 1915, Detroit installed the first stop sign, which was a two-by-two foot sheet of metal with black lettering on a white back ground. When automobile traffic increased in the 1920s, people were starting to travel on roads they were not familiar with, and were not being warned about potential hazards. It was then that a uniform ‘look’ was introduced.

Today road signs in different colours help communicate the intended instruction, warning or information. And, as a safety precaution, many road signs are designed to crumple in the event of a vehicle crash.