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Scanning Around With Gene: The Signpost Up Ahead

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I like things that change slowly and aren’t as subject to fashion as most graphic and visual arts. Traffic and road signs are one such slow mover. They’re designed to be timeless; plus, cities, counties, and the federal government often don’t revise signs until they must replace them.

So it was a lot of fun to come across three catalogs that deal with the manufacture of metal highway and traffic signs (along with other related goods). Two from the Irwin-Hodson Company of Portland, Oregon, date from 1926 and 1938. The third, from the S.G. Adams Company of Saint Louis, dates from 1939.

I’ve done something a little unusual for me, which is produce scans with a lot more small type since I think the context is particularly interesting this time. So please click on any image to see a larger version.

The first thing that strikes me in this look back at early automotive travel is the lack of conformity. There was little regulation, so signage varied from town to town, depending on the local supplier. You can see a few very minor regional differences today, but it’s only individual street-name signs that still have some local character. Another bit of regional America down the tubes.

Technology played an important role in the development of traffic signage. By the late 1930s, each of these companies had introduced “reflectorized” material as part of sign construction, though the materials were crude by today’s high-reflection standards. I suspect the use of reflective material had more to do with sign changes than any alteration in type design or setting.

In fact, reflection was a really big deal, so all sorts of ways were tried to make something show up at night. Remember, not only was reflection poor in those days, but car headlamps glowed like bad 40-watt light bulbs.

The other thing I noticed in these catalogs is that most of the signs were yellow, including the STOP signs. I imagined STOP signs had always been red, but yellow is actually much easier to see at night. However, by 1938 the STOP signs on the roads were red.

And I surely like the variety of street-sign ornamentation and the fact that some structures are known by the city that popularized them (though I don’t know which Springfield to credit with the example below).

It seems that sign-makers used “please” and “thank you” a bit more then, and used more words overall to convey messages than we do today. I guess as you train generations, you can start using shorthand. Apparently, too, the concept of an “auto-camp” was relatively short lived, as was the notion of “branding” tires!

The 1920s and ’30s were also a time of great highway construction, so there were many signs and devices related to building and road-diverting. It was, in fact, the later development of a rigid national highway system that led to a great deal of standardization.

Go to page 2 to see more car licenses from the early 20th Century, plus more road signs.

Gene Gable

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. After a decade in commercial typesetting and design services, he chronicled the desktop-publishing revolution from his post as publisher and president of Publish magazine. With nine international editions, Publish became the leading global resource on the use of digital technology for print and Web production. Gable served on the operational boards of International Data Group's PCWorld, The Web and PC Games magazines and was earlier publisher of Sporting Times magazine. During his tenure at Ziff-Davis Gable was on the executive team responsible for major business events such as Comdex, Networld+Interop and JavaOne. As president of Seybold Seminars and publisher of The Seybold Report, Gable managed a global slate of conferences, trade shows and other graphic-arts educational products. During his leadership Seybold events featured prominent speakers such as Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, Christie Hefner, president of Playboy Enterprises, Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe Systems, and Daniel Carp, CEO of Eastman Kodak. Gable has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. His clients have included A-list brands in technology and financial services. Gable's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com. Follow Gene on Twitter
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Posted on: April 17, 2009

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. After a decade in commercial typesetting and design services, he chronicled the desktop-publishing revolution from his post as publisher and president of Publish magazine. With nine international editions, Publish became the leading global resource on the use of digital technology for print and Web production. Gable served on the operational boards of International Data Group's PCWorld, The Web and PC Games magazines and was earlier publisher of Sporting Times magazine. During his tenure at Ziff-Davis Gable was on the executive team responsible for major business events such as Comdex, Networld+Interop and JavaOne. As president of Seybold Seminars and publisher of The Seybold Report, Gable managed a global slate of conferences, trade shows and other graphic-arts educational products. During his leadership Seybold events featured prominent speakers such as Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, Christie Hefner, president of Playboy Enterprises, Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe Systems, and Daniel Carp, CEO of Eastman Kodak. Gable has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. His clients have included A-list brands in technology and financial services. Gable's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com. Follow Gene on Twitter

14 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: The Signpost Up Ahead

  1. My company makes the breakaway systems used in the bases for most highway signs and light poles. Because of this… Transpo employees have taken an interest in road signs as we travel around.

    One of my personal favorite, from England, is a “frog crossing” sign!

    -Cyd Gorman, Marketing Manager, Transpo Industries Inc.

  2. You’ve really outdone yourself, Gene. What a great slice of lost Americana. And an interesting sampling of design. I recall seeing many unique roadside signs as a kid in the 1960’s/70’s traveling Route 66/US 40 from southern California to visit relatives in small Oklahoma towns. Those small towns still had many older signs that have certainly been replaced and standardized/homogenized by now. Thanks for a great lesson: design imparts character.
    -Bob Allen

  3. Thanks for the nostalgia “trip.” I remember when they replaced the fuel burning lanterns with electric lanterns in the early ’60s and even at my young age I saw it as something sad. When they would work on the highway in front of our house they gave my father a small can of fuel and asked him to keep an eye on those spherical torches/lanterns used to mark hazards at night.

  4. Thanks for another great visual resource I can show my high school Advertising Design students! Being a lover of all things vintage, I realize they don’t appreciate it as much as I do, but who cares?! They will never experience the wealth of great design America possesses unless someone forces them to take a look. Again, thank you for such excellent research!

  5. When a local intersection street sign, which was produced by prisoners, was installed regardless of the sign containing incorrect spelling of both street names, the residents near the intersection voiced their discontent to the local authorities. When they encountered a deaf ear, the sign mysteriously disappeared! That just goes to show that there is such a thing as sign proof stages. ;-)

  6. Thanks Gene : )

  7. These are a great reference to old and some really great looking signage, problem is we have no way of using them as a guide if we want to re create a shape or feel, a long time ago I was able to download a PDF file of these great stories and articles but no more, would it be to much to ask to bring the PDF back, I have about 230 emails saved and im sure most of the links wont work any more. Please bring them back!

    Thnkx, B

  8. Just a note to say how much I love these weekly offerings. I don’t do much design work but when I do I dig into my stash of old mags to plagia . . . er, find inspiration.

    Mr Gable, have you seen issues of Forbes magazine from the 20s? The most beautiful printing I have ever seen.

  9. Oddly enough, for several days now I have been thinking about the round ball torches that I would see at road construction sites at night. Our city didn’t have anything as fancy as the “Perfected Storm Kink Torch” that you show, just beat up spheres with a wick out of the top and a small cover to protect protect the flame from rain.
    The “mean” kids would roll them down the street like bowling balls or use them to set up their own road barricade.
    I also remember the reflectors with the red glass marbles. I had one that I used as a paper weight for years. Oh my gosh! I ever remember when you needed paper weights. (sigh)

  10. Hello B,

    You can still save articles as PDFs. Here’s how:

    Every article on CreativePro.com has a Print button at the bottom of the article. Click on that button and a print dialog box will appear. On the Mac, that dialog box looks like this:

    Instead of outputting to a printer, you can output to PDF.

    On my Windows PC, the dialog looks different, but the Adobe PDF print driver is still available. Click it and you have a PDF!

    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  11. Re the catalog caption referring to “one of the new San Francisco bridges”–that the Golden Gate! Those guys in Portland must have had some bridge envy to be so casual about it.

    Is there really a Festus, MO? If there isn’t, someone will have to invent it.

    Great stuff as always, Gene.

  12. What a great article and so nicely designed!
    Thanks!
    -Steve

  13. Thanks for another great visual resource I can show my high school Advertising Design students! Being a lover of all things vintage, I realize they don’t appreciate it as much as I do, but who cares?! They will never experience the wealth of great design America possesses unless someone forces them to take a look. Again, thank you for such excellent research!
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  14. When a local intersection street sign, which was produced by prisoners, was installed regardless of the sign containing incorrect spelling of chat roulette both street names, the residents near the intersection voiced their discontent to the local authorities. When they encountered a deaf ear, omegle sohbet the sign mysteriously disappeared! That just goes to show that there is such a thing as sign proof stages

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