When it comes to icons of the open road, few objects convey wanderlust better than a black-and-white, shield-shaped porcelain sign with the word “Route” at the top and the number “66” below. Indeed, the Mother Road, as Route 66 has long been known, was littered with signs, advertising every imaginable product, convenience, and service that an interstate traveler could desire.

One of the most famous and successful roadside advertising campaigns on Route 66 and countless other byways was launched by Burma-Shave in 1927. Between that year and 1963, the shaving-cream company posted some 600 jingles, each of which would unfold as motorists whizzed past a half-dozen or so sequential wooden, rectangular signs, which just about always ended with the brand’s name.

Most of the signs were painted red with white letters. In the early years of the campaign, the company’s messaging to drivers was fairly straightforward: “Bargain hunters/Gather round/Fifty cents/Buys/Half a pound/Burma-Shave.” By the 1960s, though, copy writers at the company’s ad agency were having a bit more fun. “We don’t/Know how/To split an atom/But as to whiskers/Let us at ’em/Burma-Shave.”

Because the Burma-Shave signs were made out of wood as inexpensively as possible, few survive today. More durable are vintage porcelain signs associated with travel and roadways. Actual highway signs are most treasured by collectors, as are signs designating scenic and named routes.

For example, between World War I and the 1930s, brown rectangular porcelain signs for the Pikes Peak Ocean To Ocean Highway could be found from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Black-and-white oval signs depicting horses pulling a Conestoga wagon marked the overlap between the growing U.S. highway system of the 1930s and the historic Santa Fe Trail.

Other signs were erected in the 1920s by organizations such as the California State Auto Association to help drivers calculate distances to their destinations—these yellow, diamond-shaped signs were often posted at highway intersections, with mileages of landmarks to the left and right highlighted with the help of black arrows.

Other club signs of interest to collectors are those that designated approved service stations. In the 1920s, for example, the Wisconsin Motorists Association placed a dated sign...

In fact, signs were frequently the only assurance an out-of-town traveler had of a business’s reputation. Thus, hotels would post signs that not only trumpeted their rates (in the 1920s, the Hotel Lee claimed that it had the “Best Dollar Rooms” in Peoria, Illinois, which may not have been saying too much) but also their pedigree (if the reception area of a handsome lodge was decorated with a gorgeous six-color, arrowhead-shaped “Rand McNally Official Hotel” sign, then travelers knew they were in for a good night’s sleep).

Other signs were designed to lure road-weary travelers from their vehicles, such as those bearing the words “Public Telephone” and an arrow, letters and symbol alike dotted with small reflectors known as jewels. Once they had pulled over, travelers would use the stop as a chance to fill up or find a restroom, which were marked with flanged or riveted porcelain signs designating facilities for Men and Women.

These signs ranged from simple rectangles with blue-and-white stripes and alternating white-and blue letters to fancier signs with “Ladies” and Men” written out in cursive and a silhouette of a top-hatted gentleman and woman carrying a parasol to the side.

Some restrooms signs crowed in perhaps too much detail about their virtues (“Ladies Rest Room Equipped With Sanitary Seat Covers”), while others admonished customers in advance not to be such slobs (“Help Keep This Place Clean!”).

Cleanliness was a major topic of signage created for public transportation systems, especially after World War I, when tuberculosis was a serious health concern. Blue porcelain signs with white letters designed to be placed inside railway and trolley cars got right to the point: “Spitting On The Floor Of This Car Positively Prohibited By Order Of The Board Of Health.” Signs from the 1930s in stations and platforms of the New York City subway system even spelled out the punishment (“$500 Fine, A Year In Prison, Or Both.”).

Of course, signs for public and private transit systems are also prized by collectors, whether it’s a green-and-white oval for the Pomona Bus Lines, an orange, black, and white circle to mark the location of the depot for the Inland Stage, or the myriad variations of signage created for Greyhound.

Diecut signs in the 1920s and ’30s typically paired the word Greyhound, an image of a bus, and a picture of the famous dog with the name of the regional Greyhound affiliate, from Atlantic to Pacific. Oval signs in the 1940s focused on the white purebred and the words “Greyhound Lines” in orange.

Sometimes a sign will resonate with a collector based on where they grew up or vacationed. The Market Street Railway ran trains in San Francisco in the 1930s, and its diecut porcelain signs featured two shades of green, a center section in lipstick red, and white letters, some of which proudly proclaimed the company’s role in “Improving San Francisco.”

Sightseers and winter-sports enthusiasts near Portland, Oregon might prefer a badge-shaped sign from the same era marking the location of the depot for the Mt. Hood Stages. This handsome example of porcelain art features the snow-caped mountain against an orange sky, an Art Deco style bus below, and silhouetted trees on either side to frame the composition.

Finally, though railroad signs are really in a class by themselves, there is a subset of this genre that relates to travel and highway signs. These are the signs that marked railroad overpasses or alerted drivers to the tracks themselves. For example, Midwest motorists about to cross tracks for the Big Four Route were warned by an orange-and-black sign that they should only do so “In Second Gear.”

As for the overpasses, the Jersey Central’s circular signs featured a silhouette of the head and arm of the Statue of Liberty, while signs for the Union Pacific’s Overland Route were shield shaped and equally patriotic in red, white, and blue.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Advertising Antiques

Advertising Antiques

This classy looking British site features hundreds of high resolution photos of antique porcelain pre-war (enamel) … [read review or visit site]

Historical Marker Database

Historical Marker Database

If you're the type who pulls over when you see a 'historic marker ahead' sign, you'll love this site. Orchestrated … [read review or visit site]

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Falvo Collectables Gallery

Ralph and Carol Falvo's excellent collection of automobiles, petroliana, jukeboxes, soda, and general store items. … [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Vintage Tin Erickson Airplane Sign Republic Hotel Belleville KansasVintage 1950's Sanitary Farm Dairies Milk Cow Dairy 17" Lighted Clock SignVintage 1940's Gas Station Toilet Bathroom Rest Room Porcelain Metal Sign~niceGreen & White Porcelain Conoco Gas Station Advertising Shield Shaped Sign Rare 1940s Antique Original Greyhound Metal Bus Reflective Sign 7 Feet! Nr!Vintage Yellow Stop Thru Street Road Highway Sign Early 20th CVintage 1950's United States Tourist Guide Gas Oil 2 Sided 24" Metal SignMobilgas Pegasus Shield Porcelain Gas Pump SignVintage Rare 50s Nos Aaa Vermont Trunk Bumper License Emblem Plate Old TopperOriginal Asa Porcelain Sign Pre Aaa?Route 66 Texas Us 66 Porcelain Sign Traffic Transportation Gas OilVintage Original Gulf Oil Double Sided Porcelain "clean Rest Room" SignPorcelain Colored Restroom SignVintage Original Street Sign Us Highway 66 And Olive St. Waynesville Mo. #487 Metal Union Bar Plaque Sign Vintage * Hotel Restaurant Bartenders * Afl-cioOld Porcelain Chicaco Motor Club Service Station Enamel SignVintage 1940's Weatherhead Fuel Lines 22" Gas & Oil Sign RackVintage Railroad Crossing Train Highway Sign Railroadiana Plaque New Old StockOld Porcelain Bus Stop Stc Double Sided Enamel SignIllinois State Highway 170 Route Sign - Older Retired - Nr Vintage Texas Us Route 66 Porcelain Sign Union 76 Porcelain Sign Shield Gas Pump Plate Oil Texaco MobilVintage Railroad Crossing Train Highway Sign Railroadiana Plaque New Old StockStreet Scene 35mm/2"x2" Slide New York City 44th St Camel Sign Bus 1950s1950 New Mexico Shield Hiway Sign #66 Rare 1950s Original Steel Sign Connecticut Turnpike 20” Diameter Route 95Route 66 Arizona Heavy Porcelain Metal Sign ~11-3/4"x 11" Road Gas Oil LubesterRoad Sign Real Bus Stop Sign Highway Transportation San Diego Vintage Decor OldVintage Metal Tin " Go Slow Blow Your Horn " Road Street Highway Sign Bates Motel Vacancy Arrow Black & Red Halloween Sign Haunted House Decor NewDisney World Polynesian Resort Sign Monorail Accessory - Retired & RareWells Fargo & Co. Great Overland Mail Route Porcelain Sign StagecoachTexaco Diesel Fuel 2 Porcelain Pump Sign Highway Seed Farm Co-op Tractor GarageAntique Aaa Hotel Sign Porcelain 2 SidedVintage Men & Ladies Restroom SignsVintage 1965 Metal Highway Road Sign Litter Barrel 1/2 Mile AheadGreen & White Mens Restroom Sanitary Seat Cover Porcelain 2 Sided Flange SignHarley Davidson 22 Inch Bar&shield Porcelain Sign Convex Logo Large Used How OldMy Way Or The Highway Arrow Metal Sign Old Vintage Style !!!!!!free Shipping!!!!Vintage Texas Road Farm Highway Sign 1129western Man Cave 24 X 24Original Slide Korean War Yongchon Korea Bus Station Market Sign Papa-san 1953Route 66 Vintage Metal Tin Signs Painting Home Room Pub Bar Wall Decor C1940s Rppc New State Highway Sign Us 99/26 On Viaduct Albany Or Oregon AzoMahwah, Nj - Motel Sunoco Gas Sign8x12'' Metal Art Wall Decor Retro Tin Sign Poster Ad Sticker Route 66 Tp466Antique Aaa Hotel Sign Porclain 2 SidedVintage Texas Farm Road Highway Sign 207 Western Man Cave 24 X 24Vintage Texas Farm Road Highway Sign 2291 Western Man Cave 24 X 24Vintage Porcelain Alameda Contra A C Transit Bus Sign San Francisco EnameledFlamingo Motel Matchbox Tabletop Clock Sign - New In Box - Liberty Sign Co.Vintage 5 Cent Delicious Ice Cream Tarzan Cups Metal Tin Advertising Aaa Sign CoVintage Double Sided School Bus Stop Sign Swing - Out Arm Original 1960's 70'sVintage Exit Sign Industrial Metal Hinged Glass Light Door Hotel Theater CinemaHistoric Route 66 Americas Usa Mother Road Highway Embossed Metal Sign Man Cave.Antique 1920s Chicago Illinois Vintage Street Photo W/signs Double-decker BusVolkswagen Vw Hippie Bus Peace Sign Van Vanagon Car 3d Tin Sign Wall Art GroovyVw Bus Split Road Sunset Countryside Metal Tin Sign Pub Bar Shop Cafe Wall DecorCollectibles Route 66 Tin Poster Metal License Plate Home Bar Decor Metal SignLondon Metal License Plate # Bus 1956 Tin Sign Bar Decor Vintage Texas Highway Sign 6 24 X 24