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    

Rare Texaco Restroom Sign With Original KeysOriginal Texaco Restroom Key Sign With KeysVintage 1950-60s Inland Stages Depot Bus Flange SignVintage 1960's Peter Pan Bus Lines 36" Metal Gas Oil SignDisney Disneyland Main Street Men Restroom Bathroom Sign Prop DisplayBlack Segregation Cast Iron Sign Colored Seated In Rear Bus Sign Tenn. 1929Old Porcelain Sante Fe Trailways Bus Depot Sign - No ReserveDisney Contemporary Resort Monorail Station Icon Sticker Decal Sign PropPhillips 66 Sign Bracket, Phillips 66 Shield Sign Bracket, For Curb Sign, NiceDisney-monorail-accessory-polynesian-resort-hotel W Palm Trees & SignDisney Rare Disneyland Resort Authentic Park Used Information Display Sign PropRegistered Texaco Rest Room Dealer Service Plate Sign Mobil Gas Oil Vintage13" Polished Chrome Greyhound Bus Diecut Dog Sign1925 - 1930 Porcelain Provincial Highway 6 Ont Sign ScarceRare 1930's 2-sided Metal Sign: Associated Tourist Bureau Of America With EaglesGreyhound Lines Porcelain Sign Greyhound Lines Porcelain Sign Transportation Gas Oil AdvertisingOld Cast Iron Segregation Rail Road Sign Rest Rooms White / ColoredUs Forest Service Department Of Agriculture Reflective Shield Sign Nice Vintage!Gulf Gas Station Rest Rooms Petrol Shop Garage Wall Metal Sign 2 PcAutomobile Club Of Southern California One Way Cat Eye Reflectors Porcelain SignVintage Wyomiing State Highway Department Porcelain SignVintage Original Mens And Ladies Wood Painted Restroom Signs Old Bathroom FolkyHistoric Route 66 Street Sign Chevy Usa Ford Harley Chevy Mobil Exit Texaco CellCalifornia Interstate 405 Los Angeles Highway Route Road Traffic Sign AuthenticVintage 1950's Standard Gas Station Rest Room Womens Mens Metal Key Holders SignVintage 53 54 55 National Award Aaa License Sign Auto Plate Car Topper EmblemDisney Dvc Saratoga Springs Resort Spa Room Number Door Plate Prop Display SignVintage 1940's Fram Framflex Motor Oil Filter Lines 17" Gas Station Metal SignHighway/road Sign, Leech Lake Reservation, Minnesota, Exc Cond.Advertising Sign Rare Glass Metal 1920's 1930's Art Deco Hotel Motel Inn House If You Can Wead This You're In Wange! Bang! Metal Sign,hunters,lodge Man Cave!!!Mobil Restroom Door Sign Service Station Man Cave Rest Room Gas Pump Oil North Dakota State Highway 1 Indian Chief Route Road Traffic Sign Used AuthenticArizona Grand Canyon Highway 87 State Map Outline Route Road Sign Used AuthenticPure Oil Rest Room Sign 1940's-1960's Era-originalRare Near Mint 1960s Vintage D-x Motor Oil 2x2 Inch Cloth Patch Shield SignSign Post, Train Depot, Gifts, Baubles, Birds ~ Christmas Ornament ~ Vtg ImgMobil Gas Station Gas Restroom Full Service Station Sign Mobil Oil Can Texaco Gulf Gas Station Rest Rooms Petrol Shop Garage Wall Metal Sign 2 PcVintage Niagara Falls Welcomes You Ny License Plate Sign Old Car Topper Tourist Mobil Gastation Vintage Double Sided Restroom Flange Signs, Gas And Oil Texaco Texas Interstate 69 Sign Shield Highway Traffic Road Rare Authentic I-69 New 24"Porcelain Mobil Restroom Gents And Ladies SignVintage Porcelain Enamel Ladies Restroom SignRare Near Mint 1960s Vintage Sunoco Gas Station Old Cloth Patch Shield SignConoco Phillips 66 Sign Street Shield Products Mobil Texaco Marine Gas OilAmtrak Depot Ticket Office Foil Diecut Cardstock Locomotive & Train Display SignReflective Bike Route Street Sign Schwinn Gt Se Gas Bicycle Safety Hutch Embossed Route 66 Sign Chevy Ford Harley Rat Rod Garage Man Cave Us Mobil TexacoVintage Original Two Sided Metal Rtd Bus Stop Sign Rapid Transit District Vintage S.s. United States Ocean Liner United States Lines Plaque SignNear Mint 1940s Vintage D-x Gas Station Rest Room Old 4x2.5 In. Cloth Patch SignVw Bus Vintage Metal Tin Signs Antique Painting Home Pub Bar Wall Decor Phillips 66 Super Unleaded Gasoline Service Station Sign Gas Pump RouteVintage Sinclair Service Station Embossed Tin Sign Aaa Sign Co. Coitsville, OhioVtg 1924 Plaza Hotel General Store Cardboard Sign 11"x21" Not A ReproductionMy Way Or The Highway Tin Metal Sign Funny Humorous Man Cave Bar Room DrivingNeon Style Historic Route 66 Street Sign Chevy Usa Ford Motorcycle Truck TexacoVintage, Antique, Porcelain Ladies Restroom Sign (2 Sided Flange) 1940's