Follow the Collectible Traffic Signs

So, what are the most collectible road signs? The old U.S. Route 66 identification signs are the most collectible, especially the ones that have “cat’s eyes” like this one from Oklahoma that sold for $7,500 in 2018.

Stop. Detour. One Way. Yield. Collect. Ok, the last one isn’t a street sign, but it can certainly be a good direction to follow anyway.

My son Carl has gotten his drivers license (sigh, Where did the time go?). Now that I spend more time in my own car’s passenger seat, I see and think about things differently as he drives me around now. Such as, how collectible are roadway and street signs these days?

As it happens, travel over a designated cleared path that we would now designate as a road goes back to Roman times; a stone post would have provided mile markers along the way, particularly disclosing how far it was to Rome. The Middle Ages continued to use the same roads after the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, adding wooden directional signs known as fingerposts at intersections pointing toward the next town over.

This 17th century traffic sign on Salvador street, Lisbon, Portugal, is one of the earliest directional signs in existence. Photo: Wikipedia

The earliest extant directional sign is carved in what appears to be marble mounted on a building on Rua do Salvador in Alfama, Portugal near Lisbon. It dates to 1686 directing carriages on this very narrow street to return the same way it came. It seems that the oldest street sign is also carved in stone above 34-36 Tavistock Street in London, which still shows the original name as “Yorke Street 1636.” These are exceptions, of course, as early road signage was mostly made of wood and maintained only sporadically.

Curiously enough, the first modern roadway signs that began showing up about the 1870s intended to provide some idea as to conditions of the road ahead for bicycle traffic. Yes, bicycles. Since it wasn’t easy to control the new fangled velocipede, as they were known, local bicycling groups competed to provide a sign of sorts to warn of the terrain ahead, probably ribbons on trees or hand-lettered wooden ones hammered on trees, poles, and fence posts along the way. It was all about safety, not necessarily direction.

Progress being what it is, though, the automobile soon became more the norm by the early 20th century, edging out the prevalence of the bicycle, although I can’t imagine that controlling early automobiles was any easier. Soon automobile clubs like the American Automobile Association (AAA) in 1902 replaced the bicycle signs to provide directional and safety signage along proprietary stretches of usually dirt roads.

The Italian Touring Club, a bicycle club originally, would be the first to create a coherent traffic sign system in 1895 strictly for the new-fangled automobile. Nowhere does it say what the signs looked like or were made from, but by 1909, at least nine European countries had standardized four different signs to include “bump,” “curve,” “intersection,” and “railroad crossing,” according to a Wikipedia entry on traffic signs. By 1935, the United States had its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD), which standardized all traffic signage throughout the country that is still the official guidebook for signage today.

The cast iron and porcelain road sign was the norm from the early 20th century up to World War II when most were recycled for the war effort. This heavy porcelain DANGER sign sold for $159 in 2018.

So what were the first modern signs made of? Cast iron and porcelain. Heavy and durable, these signs were first manufactured in Germany and became the norm from the early 20th century to about World War II. By then metal anything was melted down for the war effort and these early cast iron signs, like this “Danger” sign from Chicago that sold for $159 in 2018, were routinely recycled for armaments like everything else. It’s also why these early signs are so coveted by collectors because there are relatively few of them.

One of the more curious road sign design features was the addition of a reflector added to the sign itself beginning about the mid-1920s. One of the first was a flat red reflector known as a Stimsonite that you still see today as a reflector on bicycles.

Cataphotes or cat’s eyes, as they became known, became an integral part of signage as a safety feature. This STOP sign with cat’s eyes sold for almost $300 in 2016.

The more prominent reflector, though, was officially known as a cataphote. Developed by Percy Shaw, a road contractor from Halifax, West Yorkshire, in 1933, it was basically a specially crafted, rounded glass bead inserted into a flexible rubber housing originally intended to help light roads by the reflection of muted headlights during World War II blackouts. Later these cat’s eyes, as they became known, became an integral part of signage as a safety feature such as this yellow stop sign of the 1930s that sold for about $212 in 2018*. By 1939, though, 3M corporation invented a reflector sheeting process that made the use of “cat’s eyes” as reflectors on signage no longer cost-effective. However, that’s what makes these signs more valuable to collectors.

A more lightweight and more cost-effective aluminum sheeting became the norm such as this speed limit sign that sold for $55 in 2017.

By the 1950s, signage moved away from the heavier iron and porcelain and instead used steel sheeting. Later, a more lightweight and more cost-effective aluminum sheeting became the norm such as this speed limit sign that sold for $55 in 2017**. Use of silkscreen printing for the sign itself eventually replaced paint and stencils originally used in the sign making process.

Finally, we are seeing more electronic, infrared, and LED signage that is easily reprogrammed in an instant to reflect actual safety conditions, particularly along highways. Will they be as collectible 100 years from now as the early cast iron and porcelain signs are now? Perhaps, if hologram signage becomes the norm.

So, what are the most collectible road signs? The old U.S. Route 66 identification signs are, especially the ones with the “cat’s eyes” like this one from Oklahoma that sold for $7,500 in 2018. Known as the Main Street of America once upon a time, U.S. Route 66 ran from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California, beginning in 1926 but was replaced by the U.S. highway system beginning in the 1950s. While U.S. Route 66 is no longer a major road, the nostalgia remains in its collectible signs and a snappy song.

Lost on how to collect traffic signs? Ask for roadside assistance from the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio, to learn more about the world of traffic and roadway signs around the world. You will be easily steered toward your next collectible signpost.

Notes:

 * The first stop sign was installed in Detroit, Michigan in 1915.

 **Municipal signs are being bolted to signposts to discourage theft of safety signs with penalties becoming criminal offenses if a missing sign results in injury or death. Visit trafficsign.us on how to buy traffic and safety signs legally.


Tom Carrier is a General Worthologist with a specialty in Americana, political memorabilia and he has been the resident WorthPoint vexillologist (flags, seals and heraldry) since 2007. Tom is also a frequent contributor of articles to WorthPoint.

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