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    

Disney Disneyland Hotel Logo Resort Used Rare Small Sign Plaque Prop DisplayGreyhound Bus Depot Porcelain Sign Highway Transportation Tire Taxi Hot Rat RodTexas Embossed Metal Route 66 Sign Vintage The Mother Road !!!!!Original Globe Gasoline "clean Rest Rooms" Sign Vintage Gas Service Station1960s Vintage Illinois U.s. Route 36 Old Die-cut Metal Shield Highway Road SignHistoric Route 66 Street Sign Chevy Usa Ford Harley Chevy Mobil Exit Texaco Cell60" Chamois Missouri Porcelain Sign Railroad Train Station Depot Vintage AntiqueNew Blue Moon Real Glass Neon Light Motel Hotel Beer Bar Pub SignNeon Style Historic Route 66 Street Sign Chevy Usa Ford Motorcycle Truck TexacoOld Cast Iron Segregation Sign Rest Rooms White Only Cotton Belt Route July 1927Vintage Steel Walker Oil Filter Lines Sign Old Gas Station Display RackPorcelain Sign Vintage Men And Ladies Bathroom Very Nice Condition1950s Sinclair Gas Station Restroom Signs-a Matching PairWalt Disney World All Star Resort Mickey Mouse Star Mirror Sign Wall PropOriginal Rare Vintage Real Route 66 Texas SignVintage 50s Nos Mint Aaa Reading Pa Auto Emblem Plate License Badge Sign TopperElenor's Bath Salts Soothing Relaxing Old West Western Style Bathroom Sign DecorEmbossed Arcade Arrow Sign Carnival Video Games Theater Exit Highway Mobil GamesAntique Men & Women Brass Restroom Signs/still In Very Nice Condition.Big New Bates Motel No Vacancy Real Glass Neon Light Beer Bar Sign Fast ShippingOld Jersey Central Lines 18 Inch Round Porcelain Sign - Rough And OriginalUs Forest Service Department Of Agriculture Reflective Shield Sign Nice!!!Route 66 America's Highway Metal Sign, Great For Man Cave Garage Shop,chevy,fordGulf Rest Rooms Ultra Clean Men Ladies Dealer Service Sign Gas Oil Vintage LookNeon Style Historic Route 66 Street Sign Chevy Usa Ford Motorcycle Truck TexacoMystery Bus Scooby-doo!! Metal Sign,gameroom,home,kids Room,man Cave!!! Porcelain Calif Div Of Highway Sign Public Works Original 12" X 8" New Jersey Turnpike Road Sign Njtp Shield3 Vintage Stamped Metal Fire Exit Sign Aaa Sign Co. Coitsville OhioOriginal Standard Gas Station Restroom Signs With Keys-matched SetVw Bus Vintage Metal Tin Signs Antique Painting Home Pub Bar Wall Decor 26p263My Way Or The Highway Tin Metal Sign Funny Humorous Man Cave Bar Room DrivingBath Time Moisture Beads Old West Western Style Lettering Bathroom Sign DecorBath Time Moisture Beads Old West Western Style Lettering Bathroom Sign DecorUs Forest Service Department Of Agriculture Reflective Small Shield Sign Nice!!2 Of 2 Vintage Ohio Caverns Metal Embossed Metal Sign Aaa Approved West LibertyDrive-in Arrow Route 66 Road Street Sign Vintage Style Diner Drive In Decor NewOld Original Mens Wash Room Gas Station Sign Arrow Toilet Rest Vintage AntiqueNeon Style Historic Route 66 Street Sign Chevy Usa Ford Motorcycle Truck TexacoMy Way Or The Highway Arrow Rustic Road Street Sign Wall Home Decor New1 Of 2 Vintage Ohio Caverns Metal Embossed Metal Sign Aaa Approved West LibertyMarathon Restroom Sign Sign Service Station Rest Room Gasoline Oil Gas PumpAmtrak Depot Ticket Office Foil Diecut Cardstock Locomotive & Train Display SignBates Motel Vacancy Arrow Black & Red Halloween Sign Haunted House Decor NewOriginal Slide Call Sign Burlington Route Cb&q #15 Kansas City Mo 1969Vintage Old California State Highway 199 Young Lady Pose Roadside Sign PhotoVintage Milk Glass Ladies Bathroom Sign For Light Antique Rare PieceCast Iron Rest Rooms White Colored Sign L & N Railroad Nashville, Tn Embossed Route 66 Road Sign Highway Garage Historic Usa Rat Rod Mobil Texaco Embossed Arcade Arrow Sign Carnival Video Games Theater Exit Highway Mobil GamesOriginal Bus / Trolley / Streetcar Porcelain Sign - Exact Fare - 34" X 10"Route 66 Tin Metal Sign Vintage Custom Pinstripe Hot Rat Rod Tattoo Heavy ArtCalifornia Vw Bus Embossed Vintage Retro Metal Tin Sign Pub Bar Wall Decor 8x12"My Way Highway Metal Sign Vintage Look Fantastic For Man Cave, Garage, Office...Vintage Old Car Ontario Canada The Kings Highway 70 Roadside Auto Sign PhotoHistoric Route 66 Metal Poster Retro Tin Signs Decor For Home Bar Pub Tp303Route 66 Truck Stop Sign Garage Drinks Shop Chevy Ford Nascar Mobil Ice TexacoTsunami Evacuation Route With Wave Round Blue Decorative Street Road Sign NewDisney Pin Dlr Cast Exclusive Disneyland Marquee & Hotel Sign Pin SetThe Mother Road Us Route 66 Motorcycle Retro Metal Tin Sign Pub Bar Wall Decor