The Interesting History of Road Signs


When you drive your car going to work, the mall, or to run some errands, you might take road signs for granted. If you are very familiar with the place you are driving in, you might take these signs for granted, as you do not need to rely on them to get where you need or want to go. However, when traveling to different cities and countries, you will find road signs very helpful.

In the present time, try to imagine going to an unfamiliar place, and there are no road signs or guardrail around. It will be difficult, right? But it will be more challenging to imagine how it was like before there was a need for road signs. In fact, road signs did not always exist because, in the past, traffic was not like how it is today.

Today, road signs are a necessity. In the United States alone, there are more than 160,000 miles of highway and about four million miles of public roads. How would you imagine a simple drive going to the grocery store without road signs? This is difficult, especially in densely populated areas.

As you drive past road signs and traffic signals, have you ever wondered how they came about? Well, believe it or not, road signs date back to ancient Rome. The standardization of these signs may have taken a lot of years before they became the signs we know and see today, but the ancient Romans were the very first people who experienced using road signs. If you want to know more, read on because today, we are going to tell you all about the interesting history of road signs.

The Invention of Road Signs

The very first road signs were milestones, and they were used by ancient Romans. Imagine riding a horse going to work in a new city, and there are only mile markers leading your way. You are not very sure where you are going, but you are sure that you will be late. This may sound strange for people in the modern world today, but this was how it was back in ancient times. Let’s see how these road signs progressed to the ones we know today.

  • The First Road Sign in Ancient Rome

Road signs have been used since the time of the Roman Empire. Roads can be traced back to the Bronze Age, but the Romans were the ones who took the idea and ran with it. The system of roads they’ve built, including bridges and tunnels from Portugal to Constantinople, enabled them to move armies faster. This also allowed them to bring in more people and goods. This means that with a strong road system, Rome was able to become successful.

The very first road in Rome was the Via Appia, or also known as the Appian Way. This road was built in 312 B.C. At regular road intervals, milestones were placed, and these often stated who was in charge of the maintenance of that road portion and as well as the completed repairs. Aside from that, the Romans also built mile markers at intersections to specify the distance to Rome. With this, we can conclude that the Romans are indeed the ones who made the first road sign.

Back in ancient Roman times, people traveled by horseback or in carts pulled by oxen. Most of them also traveled by walking. With this, there wasn’t a need for complex highway systems yet because there’s no heavy traffic and people rushing to work every day, like what we have today.

  • Road Signs in the Middle Ages

Roman road systems were still being used during the Middle Ages. This was the period that describes Europe from the fall of Rome in 476 A.D. to the 14th century. During this time, different sign types were placed at crossroads to point or direct people toward different towns. However, after the fall of Rome, roads were no longer maintained, which made transportation more challenging. However, when the New World was discovered, it helped Europe improve the systems of transportation.

Despite social status, everyone started to leave their comfort zones and travel. People during this time traveled either by foot, on horseback, or in a covered wagon. But transporting goods in the wagon slowed down horses due to the weight, which made travel a slow process. Travel only became faster when the bicycle was invented, followed by the automobile. And with their invention, the need for better road signs have also arisen.

  • The First Road Signs in the 1800s

Many inventions and progress in industry and transportation were seen in the 19th century. During this time, many travelers no longer need to ride horses to get across different towns. New modes of transportations enabled them to travel further and faster. These include bicycles and automobiles.

The invention of bicycles took hundreds of years before it became a reality. The idea of creating a bike started in 1418. It was a four-wheeled device powered by humansand was designed by Giovanni Fontana, an Italian engineer. Despite his vision, it wasn’t until 1817 that Karl Von Drais, a German inventor, introduced the hobby horse, or the two-wheeled vehicle. However, the popularity of this vehicle did not last long and was seen as a threat to pedestrians. In the 1860s, bicycles returned and were made using steel than wood. Over the years, it was developed to become the bicycles we know today.

Automobiles, on the other hand, were invented sometime in 1885 or 1886. Though it is not very clear who is really responsible for the invention of cars, the rise of the automobile made road signs even more of a necessity.

In 1985, one of the earliest organized signing systems was developed by the Italian Touring Club. Then, by the early 1900s, the Congress of International Touring Organizations in Paris started considering standards for road signage. Nine European governments in 1909 chose four pictorial symbol signs to be used as a standard in those areas.

  • Road Signs in the 1900s

During the 1900s in the United States, a call for signs also came to meet the growth in the automobile industry. It’s because drivers were getting lost without signs. And the signs that did exist at this time were usually damaged or broken. As a result, people in the United States became more aware that they need road signs.

The beginning group of the American Automobile Association was formed as early as 1899. It was established partially to place signs on busy roads, and as well as help travelers reach their destinations.  The Buffalo Automobile Club installed a signed network in New York in 1905. Soon, the Automotive Club of California followed by putting signs on the essential highways around San Francisco. There were also times when they used colored bands wrapped around utility poles as signs.

Middle-class families were only able to afford cars when the 1920s came. But signs were still in demand by wealthy car owners prior to that. In fact, signs became so important that auto clubs competed to be in charge of placing them on popular roads. It came to the point were multiple signs were placed in one area.

Early Road Signs

Most of the early road signs, like the ones made by the American Automobile Association, were made of wood and were placed on iron columns. Eventually, a lot of the old signs were used to supply metal for World War II. The first stop sign was installed by Detroit in 1915. It was a two-by-two-foot sheet of metal that featured black lettering on a white background.

Early road signs were not reflective, and they did not have any standardization between different government agencies. With this, vehicles were slow, and drivers needed to watch out for other vehicles and obstacles themselves. When traffic began to increase in the 1920s, and people start to travel on roads that they are not familiar with, the need for a uniform look on road signs began.

graphics of different road signs

Standardization of Road Signs

The increase of cars on roads led to people getting lost, auto clubs fighting over who will place road signs, and lots of traffic chaos. With this, an urgent need for standard road signs arose. The standardization of road signs started in 1922. It was during the time when W.F. Rosenwald of Minnesota, A.H. Hinkle of Indiana, and J.T. Donaghey of Wisconsin traveled through different states trying to think of some standardization to mark and sign roadways.

In 1923, during the annual meeting of the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments, the three men reported their findings. And after some discussion, the organization agreed to use distinct shapes for various situations. Here are the shapes and their corresponding situations:

  • Octagon – to stop
  • Rectangle – for directions or regulation information
  • Round – railroad crossing warning
  • Diamond – precautions in a specific area
  • Star – a unique shape to mark highways
  • Square – care need that should be taken occasionally

All of these signs have white backgrounds and black letters or symbols. And instead of being hand-painted, like how the signs were made in the past, the letterings of these road signs were embossed. These signs were dipped into paint, and the letterings, symbols, and borders were painted black. This made it possible for the signs to be created in larger quantities. The machinery used to make these signs, however, could only create signs up to 24 inches. Therefore, this became the standard size for road signs.

The state of Minnesota then published a Manual of Markets and Signs, which was considered as the first manual for road signs. After that, many other publications were made to meet the need for motorists. Important changes also took place. From 1923 to 1942, many changes were made to improve road signs. This includes changing the color of all warning signs to black on yellow background and using reflecting elements and luminous elements on road signs.

In 1948, after the 2nd World War, the round letter alphabet was used on road signs, and sign legends were simplified by eliminating unnecessary words. In 1954, the use of secondary messages on stop signs was prohibited, and the yield sign was introduced. It’s a sign that features a yellow triangle with the black wording “Yield Right of Way.”

In 1961, the sizes of road signs were increased, and the yield sign was shortened by deleting the words “Right of Way.” In 1971, the use of symbols on signs expanded and has increased international uniformity. The color red was allowed to be used for additional regulatory signs. For guide signs, the colors white on green were made standard. The color orange was used for construction signs and work zone devices. School areas were also addressed, and the school sign with the pentagon shape was introduced. In 1978, several new symbols were on road signs as an alternative to words.

Road Signs Today

The manual for road signs is always being revised to improve the safety and efficiency of travel. Today, you can see many different colors and shapes of road signs everywhere you go. And these differ in every place or country you visit. In the United States, here are some of the present-day road sign colors that you might encounter:

  • White background – for regulatory signs
  • Red – for stop, yield, and prohibition signs
  • Blue – for road service, evacuation routes, and tourist information
  • Green – for directional guidance and permitted traffic movement
  • Yellow – for general warning messages
  • Fluorescent yellow or green – for pedestrian and school crossing
  • Brown – for guides to recreational or cultural interest areas
  • Orange – for warnings and guides in construction zones


It’s amazing to know that road signs have been used for thousands of years ago, even before automobiles were invented. With the standardization of road signs, the roads and highways we have today became more organized and safer to drive on. And we believe that as time pass, road signs will continue to improve. We hope the information we shared helped you in knowing more about the history of road signs.

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