Column: Memorable highway signs


I have a thing about road signs. Stop signs for example. I cleaned out a warehouse for a guy once and found a carton of six of them. I gave the last one away several years ago to a college student who wanted something to spruce up his dorm room.

The first stop sign appeared in 1915 in Michigan. It was followed, of course, by the first traffic ticket issued to a motorist for running a stop sign.

The first stop signs were round with black lettering. In 1922 the shape was changed to octagonal. From 1924 to 1954 they were black lettering on yellow backgrounds. Since then, they’ve stuck with white lettering on a red background.

There were other road signs that were part of my growing up years. Burma Shave signs, for instance, once populated roadways in just about every state. Interestingly, there were none in Nevada. The reason: at that time most of the state didn’t have any roads.

The first Burma Shave signs appeared in 1925 promoting a liniment, which claimed healing powers from the magical Maylay Peninsula. Unfortunately, nobody took notice until the company switched to a fancy-shmancy new brushless shaving cream. Sales accelerated and were brisk until the 1950s when bigger, wider, faster highways sprouted across the country and roadside advertising was relegated to billboards. In 1963 the signs were pulled for good.

From one end of U.S. 40 to the other, motorists were treated to an endless series of white diagonal signs with black lettering that read, “Pete’s Café.”

Nothing else, just Pete’s Café. The café itself was a non-descript building in downtown Boonville, Mo. Everybody knew about Pete’s Café but almost nobody knew where it was. I had a very good breakfast there once.

There have always been a lot of different information signs along our roads. No Parking, Keep Right Except When Passing and Danger High Water usually got my attention.

One I always liked was Tractors With Lugs Prohibited. We don’t see them anymore. Years ago, farm tractors had giant cast iron wheels with points called lugs on them. This was not a problem until we started paving our roads. The lugs quickly tore up the asphalt.

The Burma Shave signs consisted of six signs with an aggregate message, the final one reading Burma Shave. A couple I recall: “Does Your husband misbehave/ Grunt and grumble/ rant and rave?/ Shoot the brute some/Burma Shave.“

And, “Twinkle twinkle/one-eyed car/ How I wonder/Where you Are/Burma Shave.”

Finally, a few years ago, a cartoon appeared in New Yorker magazine. It showed a series of tombstones that read: “Here lie/the lads/who wrote/the ads for/Burma Shave.”

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