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The History of Traffic Signs

When you go for a cruise in your car in a familiar place, you might take road signs for granted. You don’t need to rely on them to get you where you need to go. However, if you’ve traveled somewhere new, suddenly, traffic signs are your best friend.

In modern times, it’s hard to imagine a world without traffic signs, and it’s even more difficult to imagine the world before there was a need for them. They did not always exist because traffic was not like it is today.


Why Are Traffic Signs Needed Today?

With over 164,000 miles of highway and four million miles of public roads in the United States, traffic signs are a necessity in today’s world. Can you imagine a simple drive to the grocery store without traffic signals or signs? Depending on where you live, this may seem like it wouldn’t be so bad. But for those who live in densely populated areas, it would certainly have an effect.

When exactly did traffic signs come about, though? Believe it or not, they actually date back all the way to ancient Rome. It just took many years before standardization led to the signs we know today.

traffic signs necessity four million miles of public roads US

When Were Traffic Signs Invented?

Imagine riding on horseback to a new job in a new city with only mile markers leading the way. You are not entirely where you’re going, but you’re pretty sure you’re running late.

It may seem strange as an inhabitant of the modern world, but the first road signs were milestones, and they were used in ancient Rome. Let’s look at the progression of road signs, from this ancient civilization to the signs you know today. You’ll be amazed at the history behind them, and you may never look at one the same again.

1. Ancient Rome

In one form or another, traffic signs have been in use since the time of the Roman Empire. Roads can be traced back to the Bronze Age, but the Romans took the idea and ran with it. By building a system of roads, tunnels and bridges from Portugal to Constantinople, the Romans were able to move armies faster and bring in more people and goods. In other words, a strong road system helped Rome thrive.

The first road was the Via Appia, or the Appian Way, built in 312 B.C. Milestones were placed at regular intervals and often stated who was in charge of maintaining that portion of the road as well as the completed repairs. The Romans also erected mile markers at intersections specifying the distance to Rome. — so you might say the Romans made the first road sign.

ancient rome travel and signs

In ancient Rome, people traveled by horseback, in carts pulled by oxen or by walking — there wasn’t yet a need for complex highway systems to accommodate heavy traffic or the everyday person rushing to work or to pick up the kids at school. That comes later.

2. Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, which is the period describing Europe from the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. to the 14th century, Roman road systems were still in use. During this time, various sign types were placed at crossroads to direct or point people toward different towns. However, when Rome fell, the roads were no longer maintained, and transportation was becoming more difficult. But, the discovery of the New World soon helped Europe improve transportation systems.

middle ages travel covered wagon

Everyone, despite social status, began to leave their comfort zones and travel, either in a covered wagon, on horseback or by foot. However, transporting goods in wagon slowed down horses and made travel a slow process. It wasn’t until travel became faster, with the invention of the bicycle and the automobile, that a need for better road signs developed.

3. The 1800s and the First Traffic Signs

The 19th century was a time of many inventions and progress in industry and transportation. Soon, many travelers would no longer need to hop on the back of a horse to get across town. Instead, they could travel further and faster thanks to new modes of transportation, such as:

A. Bicycles

Have you ever thought of a wild invention you figured was too crazy even to try? Don’t feel discouraged. Instead, let history inspire you. It took hundreds of years for the bicycle to become a reality. Did you know that the idea for a bike began in 1418? It was a human-powered four-wheeled device designed by Italian engineer Giovanni Fontana. 

Despite Fontana’s vision, it wasn’t until 1817 that German inventor Karl Von Drais introduced his hobby horse, or two-wheeled vehicle. The hobby horse was made of wood, including the wheels, and it did not have pedals. This meant the rider moved the vehicle by foot. As you might imagine, the popularity of the hobby horse did not last very long. Plus, this elementary bicycle was seen as a threat to pedestrians.

history of bicycles

Nevertheless, bicycles returned with a fury in the 1860s. Wooden wheels were replaced with steel, and pedals were introduced. This vehicle was known as the velocipede and made for a super bumpy ride. It’s not clear who invented the velocipede, but Pierre Lallement, a French carriage maker, obtained a patent for the vehicle in 1866.

By the end of the 19th century, bicycles were being manufactured to meet the safety and comfort demands of riders. With more people on bikes, the need for signs for bike riders, pedestrians and other travelers grew. Cycling organizations and local authorities started posting signs to help warn cyclists of steep hills or other hazards.

Eventually, automobiles and railroads overshadowed the convenience of bicycles, and they largely became children’s toys until a reemergence in the 1960s. Now, it’s estimated that two billion bicycles are being used around the world. 

B. Automobiles

It’s hard to pinpoint who is responsible for the invention of cars. Like bicycles, automobiles came into vision hundreds of years before they became a real object for use. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was creating designs for the automobile all the way back in 15th century.

Although up for debate, Karl Friedrich Benz is credited with inventing the first gasoline-powered automobile sometime in 1885 or 1886. It was in 1893 that brothers Charles Edgar Duryea and Frank Duryea established the first automobile manufacturing company in the United States.

No matter what, though, the rise of the automobile meant signs were even more of a necessity.

One of the earliest organized signing systems was developed by the Italian Touring Club in or about 1895. By the early 1900s in Paris, the Congress of International Touring Organizations began considering standards for road signage. In 1909, nine European governments chose four pictorial symbol signs to be used as a standard in those areas.

 earliest organized road sign systems

In the United States, the 1900s also came with a call for signs to meet automobile industry growth. Drivers were easily getting lost without signs. The signs that did exist at the time were often damaged or broken. As a result, Americans were becoming aware of a need for signs.

As early as 1899, the beginning group of the American Automobile Association was formed, partially to place signs on busy roads and help guide travelers to their destination. In 1905, the Buffalo Automobile Club installed a signed network in New York State, and the Automotive Club of California soon followed by placing signs on the most important highways around San Francisco. Sometimes colored bands were wrapped around utility poles as signs. 

Although most middle-class families couldn’t afford cars until the 1920s when cars were being manufactured more efficiently on assembly lines, signs were still in demand by wealthy car owners. Signs were becoming so important, that auto clubs actually competed to be in charge of adding them to popular routes — so much so that there’d be multiple signs in one area. Talk about confusing! 

What Did Early Traffic Signs Look Like?

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 II. In 1915, Detroit installed the first stop sign, which was a two-by-two-foot sheet of metal, with black lettering on a white background. 

the first stop sign

At this point in history, the signs were not reflective and did not have any standardization between various government agencies. Vehicles operated at low speeds, and drivers were expected to watch out for other vehicles and obstacles for themselves.

When automobile traffic began to increase in the 1920s, however, people were traveling on roads they were not familiar with, and they were not being warned about potential hazards. It was time for a uniform look. 

What Is the History of Traffic Sign Standardization?

With people getting lost, auto clubs fighting over who gets to place a sign and complete traffic chaos, an urgent need for standard signs arose. Next time you notice a stop sign or construction sign, you’ll feel grateful it’s there. Travelers in the early days probably spent more time getting lost than enjoying the trip.

Standardization began in 1922 when W. F. Rosenwald of Minnesota, J. T. Donaghey of Wisconsin and A. H. Hinkle of Indiana traveled through several states trying to come up with some standardization or uniformity to mark and sign roadways. They reported their findings at the 1923 annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments (MVASHD). After some debate, the organization agreed on some distinct shapes to be used for various situations. The shapes were as follows:

  • Round: Railroad crossing warning
  • Octagon: To stop
  • Diamond: To show that precautions need to the be taken in a specific area
  • Square: To show some care needs to be taken occasionally
  • Rectangular: For directional or regulation information
  • Star-Shaped: A unique shape used to mark highways

All signs were to have white backgrounds with black letters or symbols. Instead of being hand-painted as in the past, the border and the lettering or symbols would be embossed — or pushed into the metal. The sign was dipped into paint, and the lettering, symbol and border were painted black. This process allowed signs to be made in larger quantities. The machinery, however, could only make signs a size of 24 inches, so the MVASHD used this as their standard sized sign.

first manual of road markers and signs minnesota

Shortly after the MVASHD meeting, the state of Minnesota published a Manual of Markers and Signs. This is what many consider to be the first manual for traffic signs. Soon, other publications were created to meet the needs of motorists, and important changes were taking place. As you’ll see below, road signs were being taken a lot more seriously than the good old days. Here’s a timeline of traffic sign publications to demonstrate the progress from mile-markers to sign requirements:

  • Between 1923 and 1927: Both the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety (NCSHS) published manuals for standard signs and traffic control devices.
  • In 1924: At their annual meeting, the AASHTO recommended that all warning signs be black on yellow background. They also created a Joint Board on Interstate Highways to create numbering systems for roadways.
  • In 1925: The Secretary of Agriculture accepted the Joint Board’s recommendations which led to the first publication of the National Signing Manual. This manual was for rural highways only.
  • In 1929: The second edition was published and contained information on the use of reflecting elements and of luminous elements mounted below a standard sign or on a separate post.
  • In 1930: The NCSHS adopted the Manual on Street Traffic Signs, Signals and Markings. This manual was for urban areas. Some of the differences between the urban and rural manuals were colors for some signs, size of the signs and the difference between railroad signs.
  • In 1935: The first edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) was published. This helped to resolve some of the differences between the rural and urban manuals. The signs in this manual were classified as regulatory, warning or guide signs. All signs still used block lettering, which had been standard for many years. This edition also recommended that certain signs, such as stop signs, be illuminated at night. The illumination could be accomplished by the use of glass spheres or “cats eyes” placed around the border or by using floodlights for the signs. The minimum size for signs in this manual was 24 inches and increased in size in six-inch increments. Only 40 signs were illustrated in this addition.
  • In 1939: The MUTCD was revised. The highlights of this revision focused on sign illumination. Illumination for route markers, destination and one-way signs was also recommended but not required. White reflectors were used for all signs except for stop signs which could use red reflectors.
  • In 1942: A war edition of the MUTCD was published. This edition addressed blackout conditions, the conservation of materials and the need to limit placement to locations for public safety and the efficient movement of essential traffic. Because metal and chromium were needed for the war effort, signs made of wood and composite material became more common.

Blackout conditions created many problems and difficulties for vehicle operators. Only vehicles equipped with approved blackout lights could move during such blackout conditions. An approved vehicle could only have one headlight with very low candlepower and would only illuminate the roadway between 20 and 100 feet ahead of the vehicle. This made seeing traffic signs mounted at normal heights nearly impossible to see. This wartime edition required blackout signs to be mounted no more than 24 inches above the crown of the road, and only the message could be reflected. The blackout sign would be placed on the same post, just at ground level. This edition mainly addressed the difficulties relating to traffic control devices created by war.

traffic sign history world war 2 mutcd

  • In 1948: After World War II, a new MUTCD edition was published. This edition had some important changes relating to traffic signage. Some of these changes included the adoption of the round letter alphabet, and sign legends were simplified by eliminating unnecessary words. Illumination was required for all warning and regulatory signs, and sign sizes were emphasized. 
  • In 1954: In this revised edition of the MUTCD, a couple of significant sign changes were made. The most notable was the change in the color of the stop sign. The color changed from black on yellow to white on red. This edition also prohibited the use of secondary messages on stop signs. The yield sign was introduced in this edition as well. The sign was a yellow triangle with the black wording “Yield Right of Way.” 
  • In 1961: This edition of the MUTCD brought additional changes to traffic signs. This edition recognized the desirability of using symbols. Sign sizes were also increased in this edition, and the yield sign was shortened by deleting the words “Right of Way.” This edition also addressed the need for traffic control devices for highway construction projects for improved safety. Construction warning signs were specified to be black on yellow. 
  • In 1971: The MUTCD expanded the use of symbols on signs increasing international uniformity. The public was educated of these changes by educational plaques below the signs. This edition also allowed the color red to be used for several additional regulatory signs. The colors white on green were made the standard color for guide signs. The color orange was introduced for construction signs and work zone devices. This is also the first time school areas were addressed, and the pentagon-shaped school sign was introduced.
  • In 1978: The MUTCD added several new symbols for signs, as an alternative to words. Symbols for flaggers and workers were added to the construction sign section.
  • In 1988: The MUTCD added a new sign section on recreational and cultural interest signs.
  • In 1992: The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and Related Agencies Appropriations Act enacted legislation requiring the MUTCD to include a minimum level of retro-reflectivity. This new standard had to be maintained for all signs that applied to roads open to public travel.

sign retroreflectivity requirements history

Although the manual is always being revised to improve the safety and efficiency of travel, one thing stays the same — it appreciates order!

Now, you can expect the following road sign colors for instant communication, as color indicates the message contained. Here are present-day sign color meanings:

  • Red: Used to stop, yield and prohibition
  • White background: regulatory sign
  • Yellow: general warning message
  • Green: permitted traffic movement and directional guidance
  • Fluorescent yellow or green: School or pedestrian crossings
  • Orange: Warnings and guidance in construction zones
  • Blue: Road service, tourist information or evacuation routes
  • Brown: Guidance to recreational or cultural interest sites

The United States is not the only place to need a constant revision of road sign standards. Another example is Britain. 

In Britain, before the 1950s, road signs were a disaster. It took graphic designers Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert to create standard and easy-to-read road signs. After testing different versions, they created new signs based on the European standard that triangular signs warn, circles command and rectangles provide information. They used drawings or pictograms more than words. 

A picture can convey a message a lot quicker than words sometimes, and that’s exactly what British drivers needed.

When Were Animal Signs Invented?

You know those road signs that warn of deer crossing? Well, they are there for a good reason. Deer exist all over the United States, and an accident with a deer can lead to some serious damage. 

Deer are the leading animals in car and animal collisions — with about one million deer/vehicle collisions happening annually.

stats car collisions with deer

It wasn’t until the 1950s that deer warning signs were taken seriously, though. Nevada was the first state to include a deer warning sign in their driver manual in 1953. However, by the 1990s, 24 states included deer warning signs in their driver manuals.

Now, many of us recognize the yellow and black deer sign. The sign helps alert drivers to areas with a heavy deer population. Depending on where you are, you could also see warning signs for turtles, moose or ducks. 

Where Was the First Traffic Light?

In addition to road signs, traffic lights are an integral part of the traffic system.

The first traffic signal was designed by a railroad signal engineer, J.P. Knight and was installed outside the houses of the British Parliament in 1868. It had semaphore arms like any railroad signal at the time and red-green lamps fueled by gas — but after it exploded and killed a police officer, further development was discouraged.

That means the first permanent traffic control light wasn’t installed until 1914 in Cleveland, OH. Using the look of railroad signals, the first traffic control light was also red and green, and it was used to control traffic. New Yorkers were already experiencing traffic jams twice a day as early as 1913, so traffic control came at a good time. 

first traffic stop light installation

Unlike the lights we know today, early traffic lights faced only two directions, and police officers controlled traffic on side streets. Other officers manually controlled the light from a booth on the corner. Officers were also needed to make sure drivers actually obeyed the rules of the light.

In 1917, a Detroit police officer named William Potts added the yellow light to caution drivers and pedestrians between changes.

By 1918, Chicago and New York had these manually-operated lights, and soon many American cities followed. In 1922, automatic signals were available which allowed many police officers to take care of other matters. By 1926, New York had 98 automatic lights.

How Are Traffic Signs Manufactured?

Did you know many road signs are designed to break in two in case of a car crash? It’s true. Many road sign posts use a slip base, which helps the pole snap in two to help keep drivers safe and prevent vehicle damage in an accident. Put simply, the post is attached to the base with bolts that loosen on impact. The base remains in the ground allowing a car to drive over it while the sign and the post disconnect.

road sign manufacturing break in two

Although not all road signs are installed with a slip base, you can expect most road signs to be made using the following process. First, traffic signs are no longer made of stone, like in the Roman days, or of cast iron or unfinished wood like early traffic signs. Now, signs are designed for durability and practicality. In general, traffic signs are composed of one of the following materials:

  • Plywood coated with plastic 
  • Steel
  • Aluminum

Manufacturing traffic signs requires several steps to ensure a sign is sturdy and legible. To manufacture a sign, a worker will:

  • Cut the blank: The sign blank is cut, and the corners are rounded. Holes are punched for mounting the sign.
  • Check: The blank is checked for dirt and defects before the next step is taken. Blanks must be free of any debris for the reflective sheeting to adhere properly.
  • Degrease: The blank is wiped clean with a special solution to remove any fingerprints or grease.
  • Apply reflective sheet: A reflective sheet is cut and applied to the blank surface.
  • Heat: The sign is heated before copy or symbols are applied, and then it is left to cool.
  • Apply reflective letters: Letters, symbols and borders are applied in black or white reflective sheeting. The sign is heated again.

Different types of reflective sheeting produce different results, which also need to be considered. For example, microprismatic sheeting produces high-intensity reflection and is typically applied to highway signs and construction zone devices. All signs must be maintained and regularly inspected or replaced to meet retroreflective standards. We’ll go into more detail about retroreflection soon.

It’s important to manufacture a sign that adheres to standards set by the MUTCD.

What Are Traffic Sign Requirements? 

When you’re driving at night, you probably know the importance of being able to see traffic signs. Reflective signs are very important to safe navigation. Did you ever wonder how you can see traffic signs at night without electricity? The science of retroreflection makes easy nighttime travel a reality. Most signs are required to be retroreflective. Considering the nighttime crash rate is almost three times the daytime crash rate, it’s probably good that this requirement exists. 

nighttime crash rates higher than daytime accidents

According to the DOT, a few signs are exempt from retroreflection maintenance. These include:

  • Parking signs
  • Walking or hitchhiking signs
  • Adopt-A-Highway signs
  • Brown or blue backgrounds
  • Exclusive use of bikes or mopeds signsF

However, these signs must still meet other MUTCD requirements and must be created to be retroreflective. All other signs must be regularly inspected and maintained to meet retroreflective requirements.

What Is Retroreflection?

Signs retro-reflect a car’s headlights, which means the sign reflects the light back to the vehicle. Signs are composed of special plastics that contain millions of small prismatic beads. This makes it possible to catch the light reflecting off a sign at just the right angles.

Reflective sheeting dates back to the 1930s, and we still use similar technology today. However, in the 1980s, signs started to be manufactured with tiny prisms rather than glass beads. Other design requirements stated by the MUTCD include: 

  • Dimension: The overall dimensions of sign plates should be in multiples of six inches when applicable. Sometimes signs need to be bigger or smaller than the standard size depending on the situation. When signs must be different than the standard size, lettering needs to be adjusted and either reduced or enlarged to meet standards. 
  • Letter style: Letter types need to be the ones shown in the Standard Alphabets for Highway Signs book. It has been proven that wider spaces between letters improve legibility. Letters are usually uppercase.
  • Letter size: Typically, letters should be at least six inches in height. A rule to remember is to have one-inch of letter height for every 40 feet of desired legibility.
  • Amount of legend: Road signs should be limited to three lines of principal legend including place names, route numbers and street numbers to increase instant legibility. In other words, signs cannot feature too much information.
  • Borders: With some exceptions, all signs are to have a border with the same color as the legend. 

Those are just a few of the rules — but we’ve come a long way from mile-markers to the modern road sign. 

What Is the Future of Traffic Signs and Manufacturing?

The need for new traffic signs is always growing and changing, especially to keep up with advancements in technology and modern lifestyles. In some places, signs are going digital. Have you noticed weather or traffic advisory signs along the highway? If you live in Iowa, you may have also experienced some digital roadside humor

The priority of an effective traffic sign is to be attention-grabbing and legible. Next, a sign needs to be able to communicate a message instantly. When it comes to road signs, simple is best.

traffic sign requirements legible and attention grabbing

Some states are making use of embedded light emitting diodes (LED) to enhance visibility. The DOT says LEDs improve safety at intersections because they enhance awareness. These lights are solar-powered, may be set to flash or stay on and can either be used all day or set to activate when drivers or pedestrians approach. LEDs are especially effective for stop signs and problem areas.

As technology advances, expect traffic signs to remain visually simple but more legible at night and from further distances. The point of traffic signs is not to distract drivers, but to communicate a message as quickly as possible at any hour of the day. Signs will continue to be manufactured with a high priority on legibility and standards.

Are You Looking for an Experienced Sign Manufacturing Company?

Over all these years, U.S. road signs have seen significant improvement. In the beginning, there was few, and they were far between. Today, it is almost impossible to go onto any road without seeing a road sign directing drivers and pedestrians where to go.

D.E. Gemmill is a proud PA and MD approved sign manufacturing facility, and our signs adhere to the highest standards to ensure material compliance and to meet current retroreflective standards. 

If you are looking for an experienced sign manufacturing company or help with road sign installation, we encourage you to contact us today for all your ADA, custom interior or exterior signage, wayfinding signage, banners and road or highway signage needs. 



Craig Adams, Inc. has used D.E. Gemmill exclusively for our Line Painting and Signage needs since the 90’s.  We have always been very pleased with the quality of work performed, jobs completed in a timely fashion, and at competitive prices, on all size projects.  A great company to do business with!

— B. Keller , General Manager    , W. Craig Adams Inc

It has always been a positive experience working with D.E. Gemmill. It all starts in the estimating department where I can always count on receiving a proposal that is accurate and thorough. Then we have the tough task of scheduling on tight time frame jobs where Cary and Dave always seem to work us in when we need it. The field guys always do their best to bring to our attention possible conflicts that could present problems if they notice something that isn’t quite right.

I would recommend D.E. Gemmill’s services for anyone looking to have professional and quality workmanship on their projects.

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We wanted to send you a thank you for the great job. The men working were very good and completed their job very professionally. I really like when you have a great team to work with. Again thank you and your crew, we would recommend your company to anyone.

— W. Willders , Westminster Place At Stewartstown

I would like to let you know that the line painting crew (Donnie, Albert, Scott, Tom, and Possum) did a fantastic job this week. It was a pleasure to work with them and the respect they showed me while I was riding along. Please pass my appreciation along to them.

Also if you can get Donnie into singing lessons that would be great.  My ears still feel the pain.


— S. Walker , City of Lebanon – Traffic Shop

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