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]

Pittsburgh Signs Project

Pittsburgh Signs Project

This group artistic effort to catalog the signs of Pittsburgh captures many vintage signs (porcelain, neon, wood, t… [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    

Vintage 1940's Greyhound Bus Flag Stop Gas Oil 2 Sided 22" Metal Flange SignVintage C.1950 Aaa Lodge Gas Oil 2 Sided 30" Porcelain Metal Sign W/bracketVintage C.1950 Aaa Emergency Service Gas Oil 2 Sided 36" Porcelain Metal SignVintage Porcelain Road Highway Sign Calif. Div. Highways ReflectorsRailroad Crossing Signal 2 Tracks Aluminum Railway Light Mast Highway Sign Super Rare Us Forest Service Portage River Route Porcelain Sign Government CanoeOld Vintage Antique Louisiana Us 190 Diecut Shield Highway Road Street Sign 1958Large Vintage 1940's Salvation Army 33" Porcelain Metal Gas Oil Shield SignInterstate 66 D.c. Highway Route Road Sign Used AuthenticBus Destination Blinds Scroll/signs & Setright Ticket Machine Job Lot ManchesterVintage 2 Sided National Automobile Club Official Garage Sign Not PorcelainVintage Porcelain Mobil Restroom Signs Ladies Gents NosVintage Stop Sign California State Automobile Association Aaa Vintage Aaa Radiator Badge License Plate Topper"pennsylvania"nos,porcelain Sign1930s Indiana State Highway 124 Road Sign Embossed State Shape Original Paint !!Vintage Radiator Badge License Plate Topper"randall Aaa Club,porcelain Sign,1910Rare 1930-40 Yellow Stop Sign -- State Route - Deeply EmbossedVintage Original Shell Women Porcelain Restroom SignVintage 1950's Gulf Rest Rooms Gas Station 2 Sided 18" Porcelain Metal SignsEmergency Shower Vintage Porcelain Sign Bathroom Hospital Military Vintage 1950's Clean Rest Rooms Gas Station 29" Embossed Porcelain Metal SignRare Original Tennessee Highway 85 Porcelain Railroad SignVintage Original Shell Ladies Porcelain Restroom SignVintage Double Sided U.s. Travel Bureau Reflective Travel Stop Highway Sign Vtg Original Highway Route 64 Road Sign State Shaped Missouri Bucking Bronco Early Wyoming Interstate Highway 89 Sign 24" Square OriginalRegistered A Texaco Dealer Service Rest Room Porcelain Sign,mintyVintage American Gasoline Sign For Restroom KeyDisney Monorail Accessories 5 Resort Signs Set Contemporary PlaysetVintage 40s 50s Nos Aaa Wisconsin License Plate Topper Rat Rod Rare Emblem Sign Disney Grand Floridian Resort Wdw "caution" Traffic Sign1940s Motor Court Motel Marquee Horse Ranch Lighted Neon Sign Vegas SignVtg 60s Gillig Cast Metal School Bus Front Name Plate Emblem Badge Sign Rat RodCirca 1952 New Mexico State Road 58 Zia Road Sign Excellent Condition HighwayKiekhaefer Mercury Outboard Motor Boat Shield Sign Modern RetroOld Indian Chief Tin Service Store Road Highway Sign-insurance-motorcycle ??Pennzoil Shield Motor Oil Gas Pump Sign,30x20 Nos, Service Station,1970,lexan"trucks Enetering Highway," Real Road Sign, 30"x30"Vintage Auto Autobile Aaa Advertising License Plate Topper Sign Two Harbors Mn Disney Dvc Saratoga Springs Resort Spa Room Number Door Plate Prop Display SignGreyhound Motor Fuel Sign Porcelain Large 17 1/2" X 32" Gas Oil PetroMobil Gastation Vintage Double Sided Restroom Flange Signs, Gas And Oil Texaco Route 66 Get Vintage Tin Sign Bar Antique Metal Sign Home Pub Bar Decor Tp627Old Vintage Porcelain Ladies Restroom Sign Gas Service Station N.o.s.Vintage 1980's Rockford, Il Transit Bus Side Sign Box W/roll Sign3 Porcelain Signs "transfer Bus" Variations Antique 1920-40's Utilities Old Highway / Route 66 B/w Photo Picture New Mexico Shield Sign Rare 1940'sFantastic Vintage 1960's Beck's Beer Germany Shield Style Bar SignVintage Kansas Road Route Embossed Metal Highway SignVintage Street Sign Highway Grant Route Steel Sign Display Garage Man Cave Vintage 1953 Aaa National Award Trunk Lid Emblem SignPair Hess Restroom Service Station Door Signs Rest Room Sign Men LadiesConoco Men Restroom Rest Room Porcelain Sign Continential OilUnion Pacific 4000 Railroad Shield Brass Plaque Sign Figural Paperweight CoasterOld 1950s Joplin Missouri Mo Mickey Mantle Operated Holiday Inn Sign Highway 71 Snow Route No Parking Tow Zone, Real Road Sign, 12"x36"New Route 66 The Mother Road Vintage Tin Signs Metal Poster Home Room Bar DecorVw Bus Vintage Tin Signs Antique Metal Sign Home Pub Bar Decor Tp331Highway Transportation 99 Freeway California Sign.not Porcelain,farm,soda,tinNeon Route 66 Sign