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From Rome to Detroit: A History of Street Signs

Cruising down the highway, the open road is decorated with green interstate signs, orange construction signs and even electronic signs that tell you what’s ahead. Signs are such a common part of the American roadway infrastructure that we may take them for granted. But, have you ever thought about where road signs came from?

To answer that question, we must go back to ancient Rome–and its milestones. When you think of a “milestone,” you may think about a personal achievement or a rite of passage – major events that mark an important place in your life’s journey. But this term originally had a much more literal meaning: The ancient Romans used tall columns called “milestones” to relay information to travelers on its roads. They indicated how far away Rome was, and gave travelers directional information, and were some of the earliest road signs in the Western world.

Signage stayed simple for centuries, until the advent of the automobile created a more urgent need for a clear, organized system. In Europe, the Italian Touring Club began lobbying for better road signs in 1895. Across the pond, U.S. street signage remained basic until the turn of the 20th century, when the current system began to take shape. At the time, it was not uncommon to come across roadway signs that were broken or unreadable; in many instances, the necessary signs simply didn’t exist.

That began to change in 1899 when, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), a group of car owners met at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City to form a car club. One of their priorities was to post and maintain signs on key roadways, which would guide motorists to specific destinations. In the years to come, organizations in other areas of the country followed suit.

In 1905, the Buffalo Automobile Club put up a network of signs in New York, and in 1909, the Automobile Club of California installed signs on major roadways within a 250-mile radius of San Francisco. The DOT says interest in establishing road signs grew as other clubs formed, and in the early 20th century, 40 to 50 percent of heavily trafficked roads in some areas could have as many as 11 competing signs pointing travelers in the same direction.

As time went on, efforts were made to standardize the colors and shapes of the signs that were popping up along our nation’s roadways. Cleveland became home to the first electric traffic signal in 1914, and the first stop sign was posted in Detroit in 1915, according the DOT. Wisconsin was the first state to put up official route signs in 1918, and in 1920, Detroit got the first three-color traffic signal.

Just as our cars and roadways have evolved over time, the DOT says road signs continued to evolve in order to “accommodate increased traffic, higher speeds, more commercial traffic, and roads that serve travelers 24 hours a day in all types of weather.” Now, in the days of electronic billboards and highway signs that give up-to-the-minute travel times, it’s clear that street signs have come a long way since the milestones of Rome.