In Defense of Vintage Chicago Traffic Signs

princeton-1By David G. Firestone

I’ve lived in Chicago my whole life, and all my life, I have been fascinated with signs of all kinds. It doesn’t matter if we are talking advertising, store, or street signs, they have always fascinated me. Living in Chicago for as long as I have, and traveling with my family around the city, I have occasionally seen street signs like this one.princeton-1 princeton-2

This is a vintage street sign for Princeton Avenue. These yellow and black signs were used in Chicago until the 1970’s. Not all of the yellow signs went away, some were missed, albeit unintentionally. Many of them wound up in the hands of collectors. As they were being discarded anyway, it is perfectly legal to own then. The font is slightly reflective, whereas the background isn’t.

This Ewing Avenue sign follows the rules set by the 1971 version of the The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). ewing-1 ewing-2That particular version stated several significant standards; it required all center lines on two-way roads to be painted in yellow (instead of white, which was to indicate traffic moving in the same direction), and required that all highway guide signs (not just those on Interstate Highways) contain white text on a green background. Most of the repainting to the 1971 standard was done between 1971 and 1974, with a deadline of 1978 for the changeover of both the markings and signage. It should also be noted that the Ewing sign uses the standard font for street signs, commonly known as “Highway Gothic.

Interestingly, while the MUTCD is the standard for the United States, other countries, namely Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland use MUTCD. The other standard for road signs is The Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, which was signed in 1968, and came into force in 1978. 63 countries uses the VCRS.

Anyway, taking these two designs into question, if given the choice, I would take the yellow/black over green/white. I would do this because the reflective nature of the green sign can make if difficult to read in dark conditions. The yellow sign isn’t as reflective, and the dark on light setup works much better than light on kinda dark. I’m not alone on this, I’ve talked to several antique dealers, some old, some young, and many of them agree with me.ewing-1 princeton-1The color scheme resembles that of school buses, and that is not by accident. The reason school buses are yellow is because Dr. Frank W. Cyr realized that the color scheme would be easily seen by children in the semi-darkness of the early morning. I’ve seen yellow fire trucks, and ambulances, designed for the same reason. Using that setup makes the signs much more visible in dark conditions. The green and white scheme came into use because of highway signs. Originally, the highway signs were supposed to be blue with white lettering, but they were much more difficult to see.

While I disagree with the standards, they are the standards, and I have to accept it. I think the color scheme and over-reflectivity is an issue, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    Wondering why the Ewing sign has no directional letter?
    Also, what part of Chicago are you in? (I’ve lived in Lakeview and Rogers Park).
    I’ve enjoyed observing Chicago signs too (and traffic lights, for that matter). Might you have more blog entries on such topics?
    Thanks,
    Dave

    • I actually live in Evanston, but I HATE saying that, saying I live in Chicago sounds better. I may or may not do another blog post, depending on time.


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