Old California porcelain enamel traffic signs

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The History of Traffic Signing in California

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The early days of motoring in California were an adventurous ordeal. Most routes were unmarked, not paved, and traffic signs were basically nonexistent.

Signs which were erected were often confusing and misleading or placed as commercial advertising instead of an aid to the motorist.

One of the first activities undertaken by the state's two automobile clubs after their organization was the establishment of a traffic signing program. The result was a centralized, coordinated, and uniform program that became the finest in the nation.

The Automobile Club of Southern California (ACSC) erected signs in the state's 13 southern counties from 1906 until 1956. In 1926, when the federal government adopted the U.S. route system, the ACSC posted US shields on routes 66, 80, 91, 99, and 101 in its territory.

The club also erected guide signs in Arizona, southern Nevada, and Baja California. Many old trails were marked by the ACSC, including the Midland Trail from Ely, NV, to Los Angeles; the National Old Trails Road from Kansas City to Los Angeles; and the Old Spanish Trail from Kent, TX to San Diego.

The California State Automobile Association (CSAA) was responsible for signing in the 45 counties of northern and central California from 1914 until 1969. The CSAA erected US shields on routes 40, 48, 50, 99, 101 and 199. The CSAA also marked the Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City and the Victory Highway to Kansas City.

When California established the state highway numbering system in 1934, the ACSC and CSAA erected the State Highway "bear shield" on routes in their respective territories. At first, each club paid all costs associated with signing activities such as engineering survey, sign, hardware, labor, and maintenance. By the early 1930's cities, counties and the state agreed to pay the costs of signs only. The CSAA and ACSC continued to pay the remaining signing expenses.

In 1947, due to the rapid population growth and expansion of the state highway system, the Department of Public Works, Division of Highways (DOH), took over signing responsibilities on all state and US highways. The auto clubs however, continued to provide signing services to California's cities and counties.

Traffic signs erected by the ACSC, CSAA, and DOH were porcelain enamel on 18 gauge steel and made of the finest, most durable material available at the time.

If a sign became damaged, it could be "touched up" in the field without removing it from its post. Signs were generally mounted on a 4 x 4-inch redwood post or steel pole. Glass reflectors were used to increase night time visibility but were replaced with plastic during World War II when glass was needed for the war effort.

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