Signs of Worcester: How did we get here?

This is the second of a series of posts about Worcester’s street signs (the first one was here).  I thought it might be worthwhile to take a quick look at the history of street signage before we dive into the pros & cons of Worcester’s current sign replacement program.

We haven’t always had our streets conveniently named and marked with signs.  Larger cities in Europe a few centuries ago (and shortly thereafter in America) found it convenient to name or number their many streets.  Some early street name signs were attached to the sides of buildings near street corners, which was perfectly convenient for pedestrians and slowly travelling equestrians.

Actually, this isn't Worcester -- it's Brattleboro, but doesn't it look great?

When automobiles first became popular in the early 1900s, it became important to be able to see & read street name signs from behind the wheel of a vehicle travelling much faster than the speed of a trotting horse.  Additionally, many drivers now had a roof over their heads, and so were unable to see signs affixed high up on building corners.  Thus, roadside signs were needed, both for traffic control at intersections, and to impart information, such as what street you were on or what road you were passing by.

Harrington Corner, without dueling donut shops

Early roadside signs in America were often erected by automobile clubs to help members find their way — though there was little consistency in their efforts at first.  Some early New England clubs included the Worcester Automobile Club, the Bancroft Automobile Club, the Automobile Club of Rhode Island and the Boston Auto Club. As more and more people found the means to buy an automobile, the potential for accidents increased.  For the sake of public safety, many cities and towns began to take over the task of erecting traffic & street name signs with the motorist in mind, although having street names nearer eye level also benefitted pedestrians.  In 1924, the first steps toward national uniformity in road signs were taken by the Bureau of Public Roads, which set standards for some of the roadside signage.

Franklin Square, now Federal Square, sans Red Baron

Street name signs are now located at most intersections (though rarely at the ones I need them most), and are often posted in perpendicularly oriented pairs identifying each of the crossing streets, mounted on either utility poles or smaller posts installed specifically for the sign.

Early street signs could be quite beautiful.  Here are some done in frosted glass in Baltimore, mounted under street lamps so that they’d be illuminated at night:

Some were crafted in durable cast iron or aluminum, such as these in Brookline:

I am totally drooling over these street signs

I haven’t seen anything quite that beautiful among Worcester’s early street signs.  Until World War II, many street name signs were painted on small pieces of wood, usually black sans-serif lettering on a light background, much like these I found still standing in Paxton:

Seriously -- aren't these adorable?

In the years following the second world war, companies such as 3M began manufacturing an adhesive  sheeting with “retroreflective” qualities, which was quickly put to use on traffic & street signs to aid in night time visibility.  Retroreflective material allows light beams to “bend” and return toward the original light source.  Many of Worcester’s older street signs were redone on thin metal blanks in the 1950s and 1960s using adhesive black letters on a yellow background — some of these signs can still be seen today, but they no longer seem retroreflective.  This older material had what was called an “enclosed lens system”, where the surface of the sheeting was covered with tiny glass beads and then covered with a transparent film, which was a tremendous innovation in its time, though it seems to dull with age.  Here are some examples of the yellow signs:

When Worcester began changing its signs to white lettering on green in the early 1970s, it used a new retroreflective material that employed an “encapsulated lens system”.  The difference was a resin  base and an additional reflector coat behind the glass beads. This material was three to four times as bright as the “enclosed lens” material, and it retained its reflectivity longer.  Here are some examples that are four decades old and still in great shape:

The 1970s-era signs of Worcester have mostly stood up well over time.  The few exceptions I’ve seen are ones that don’t seem to use retroreflective material — here are a couple of examples:

The latest innovation substitutes microscopic prismatic reflectors in place of the embedded glass beads. There are roughly 7,000 microprisms per square inch on this type of sheeting, which returns about three times the brightness of the “encapsulated lens” material.  This has been available for about 20 years, though we’ve really only seen it used on Worcester signs in the past decade or so.  Here’s one of the new brighter signs:

Have you noticed that the newer signs seem brighter during night driving?  Or is the brightness cancelled out by the use of the thinner serifed typefaces on the newer signs? I have my own opinions that I’ll save until the last segment of this series, but I’d enjoy reading yours in the meantime.

In the next installment we’ll talk a bit about typefaces on signage — what works and what doesn’t, and how Worcester measures up.

– – – – – – – – – –

For further reading about retroreflectivity:

Are you a sign geek?  Here’s the first edition (1927) of the “Manual and Specifications for the Manufacture, Display, and Erection of U.S. Standard Road Markers and Signs”:

Compare that to the 2009 edition of the “Manual on Traffic Control Devices”(MUTCD):

Here’s an interesting article about the history of computer-aided sign making:

6 thoughts on “Signs of Worcester: How did we get here?

    • Nicole says:

      Oh, good! I hope you’ll enjoy this series — it’s a bit more about street signs specifically, but you have a wonderful site there! (And my research assistant and I have learned SO MUCH doing all the pre-work for this…)

  1. Hy Kolonic says:

    re signs

    come on, they are probably made by inmates

    • Nicole says:

      The city has a sign shop, and it’s city employees who make the signs. Stay tuned for more in the series, because we’ll get into sign design much more next week.

  2. t-traveler says:

    is the city sign shop making the newer strret signs in Leicester? what about other towns

  3. […] of Worcester: At least we’ve got “diversity” on street corners, How did we get here?, The typography of street name signs, Graphic elements and street-type designations, How do they […]

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