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 Vintage Standard Oil Gas Service Station Ladies Restroom Torch Lighted SignOld Double Sided Greyhound Bus Sign, Bus Flag Stop Sign W FlangeVintage 1940's Pay Toilet 5c Bathroom Gas Station Rest Room Porcelain Metal SignOld Road Highway Dead End Closed Sign With Glass Cats Eyes Reflector Oklahoma Route 66 Us Gasoline Porcelain Sign Oil Gas Pump Lube Rack Plate Antique Original Hotel Motel Advertising Sign *the Parkway Hotel* In Reno 1940s California Us Route 66 Steel Sign (not Porcelain Petroleum) HighwayVintage 1940's Pay Toilet 5c Bathroom Gas Station Porcelain Metal SignVintage Cataphote Cat Eyes Road Sign Post ReflectorGeorgia I-75 Peach State Vintage Interstate Highway Route Road Sign Used RealVintage 1930's Watch For Cars Gas Oil Railroad 20" Porcelain Metal Street SignRoute 66 Oklahoma Porcelain Sign Gas Pump Plate Oil Lubester Advertising1920's Porcelain California Triple Aaa City Traffic SignVintage Enamel Porcelain Metal Sign Toilet Rare Sign Restroom Walt Disney World All Star Resort Mickey Mouse Star Mirror Sign Wall Prop1970s Illinois Route 66 Shield Sign (not Porcelain Petroleum) HighwayU.s. Route 66 Missouri Mo Vintage Porcelain Sign "get Your Kicks On"Original Vintage Authentic Kansas Highway 50 Metal Shield SignPhillip 66 Porcelain Sign Vintage Original Motor Gas Pump Lubester Route OilLarge Antique Original 2-sided Road Sign **nevada Information Center**Rare Vintage Arizona Route Us 66 Porcelain SignVintage Embossed Metal Yield Road Street Gas Oil Transportation Sign1969 Plymouth Road Runner Vintage Lighted Dealership Sign Superbird Mopar HemiPorcelain 1950's Bus Stop Sign, Glendale CaliforniaTexaco Rest Room Signs, Texaco Men, Texaco Ladies Room SignsOld Original Sunoco 2 Pc Rest Rooms Porcelain Graphic Signs Men-ladies SouthernLarge Porcelain 1930's "style" Greyhound Bus Lines Depot Diecut Sign1969 Plymouth Road Runner Vintage Lighted Dealership Sign Superbird Mopar HemiVintage Porcelain Stop Sign California Highway 1940's Gas Station Oil Pump Car Sign Porcelain Two Sided Aaa Keystone Automobile Club Pennsylvaniatin Metal CapCalifornia I-40 Interstate 40 Route 66 Highway Route Road Sign Shield Used Real26" Porcelain Bus Depot Santa Fe Trail Chicago Los Angeles Metal Gas Oil SignVintage Austin Garage Arrow Road Sign...metal Advertisement Auto Antique !Old Street Road Highway No Parking Pressed Steel Sign Real Road Sign, Police Cars Only, 12 X 18Vintage 1940's Wyoming State Highway Dep't Truck Gas Oil Porcelain Metal Sign1980s 1990s California Highway 1 Sign Metal Road (not Porcelain Petroleum)Vintage Original Pampers Diaper Metal Sign,advertising General Store,bathroomAntique Cast Iron Advertising Hotel Sign **notice $10.00 Fine**Lewis And Clark Trail Road Sign - Unused - Real Dot Specs - Highway Traffic SignReal Road Sign, Cross Traffic Does Not Stop, 24 X 18Koa Camp Ground Freeway Interstate Highway Route Road Traffic Sign Used RealVintage 1940's Highway Courtesy Order Of Red Men 14" Gas & Oil Sign W/indian1970s Texas Highway Us 66 Road Sign (not Porcelain Petroleum)Vintage 1950's Aaa Emergency Service Gas Oil 2 Sided 23" Porcelain Metal SignVintage Chicago Porcelain Street Sign "w. 24th St"Vintage Afl Hotel Restaurant Union House Labor Tin Metal Sign PlaqueRetired North Dakota Highway Route 66 Aluminum 24"x24" Sign Red Tomahawk/sittingVintage Chicago Porcelain Street Sign "s Whipple St"Chrysler Plymouth Lighted Dealership Service Sign Neon Sign Road Runner Cuda Authentic California Route Us Coast 101 Road Reflective Highway Sign 28 X 24Route 66 Us Heavy Porcelain Metal Sign ~11-3/4"x 11" Mother Road Gas Station Oil"used" Lot Of 5- City Of Utica Ny - Double Sided Street Signs -pickup Only!Blue Ridge Parkway Sign - Unused Dot Specs - Highway Traffic Route Sign - Nice!!Mobil Gastation Vintage Double Sided Restroom Flange Signs, Gas And Oil Texaco Old Street Road Highway Hill Pressed Steel Sign Vhtf Disney Pin Wdi Disneyland Railroad Main Street Train Wait Time Sign Le Vintage Enamel Porcelain Metal Signs Women And Men Rare Signs Restroom Vintage Kansas Route U S 66 Porcelain Road SignOriginal Authentic 1950's Washington Us Highway 99 Shield Route Road Hwy Sign