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 ...
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 every year on the sides of repair shops it deemed good enough to be identified as an “Official Garage.”
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.
Interviews & Articles
I liked to collect things even as a child. Things that didn’t cost anything, like different colors of stones. There was somethin… [more]
How did I get started collecting advertising antiques? My dad was a lecturer and tutor in graphics and art from the 1960s onwards,… [more]