The Original US Shield Modern US 47 shieldThe United States Highway Sign

The history of the US Highway shield

Site created and maintained by Robert V. Droz.

History: US Numbered Highways have used the same basic shield since before their numbers were agreed upon.

1925: Official US shieldThe preliminary design was first proposed April 20, 1925. Leo Boulay of Ohio suggested using the official US shield. It had been in use by the U.S. government in various forms since the late 1700's and a version of it can be found on modern American currency. Automobile Blue Books, Inc. of Chicago, Illinois used a blue variant of the US shield with white lettering to endorse Hotels, Garages, Restaurants, Tea Rooms, and Inns in the 1920's. The Automobile Blue Book shield shown is from Vol. 2, published 1925. The first plan was to use the basic shape of the official US shield as the route marker with the addition of "U.S.A." and a route number. An early debate on color schemes was between yellow with black numbers and white with black numbers. Yellow offered better winter and snow visibility, but the color was also being proposed for use with several other road signs at the time, all related to road hazards. The color white was decided upon for the US shield. Trans-continental Colonel Frederick S. Greene of New York objected to the use of "U.S.A.", favoring "T.C." for "Trans-continental", his vision of the US Numbered Highway System. Colonel Greene favored an extremely limited amount of routes, with a strong emphasis on those routes being transcontinental in nature, much like the Eisenhower Interstate System in modern times. His naming suggestion was rejected in favor of the appellation "U.S.". New York State still ended up bearing the brunt of his numbering ideas. Many planned three-digit US numbered highways like US 220 end up with termini at the NY state line because these shorter branch routes did not follow Col. Greene's vision. If he had acceded to the direction route numbering was taking, it is possible these routes would have been extended to a US route across southern New York, possibly a rerouted US 6. US 6 in Pennsylvania might have been part of extended routes US 106 and US 120. On August 3, 1925, AASHO dropped the state name from the proposed shield to add emphasis to the U.S. part. Many states balked at this and on August 4, 1925, the state name was reinstated, and the "State" "US" "number" format formally adopted. The first US shield actually fabricated as an example was the then-unused number '56' with the state of Maine (See above left).

Late 1920's - Mid 1950's: In "American Highways" April 1927, Vol. VI No. 2, the sign approved for the US numbered highway system was described thusly: "The design adopted is the commonly known United States shield outline, and this shield carries the route number, as well as the State name through which the road passes." The chosen size for the US highway shields was approxiamtely 18" x 18". Early US signs were supposed to be all in block letters, but some curves snuck in, like the 'S' in the rusty old US 66 on the right side of the page. This US 66 picture is courtesy Jim Ross. The sign is authentic, and was probably posted in 1926. It used to stand in Chandler, Oklahoma, facing westbound traffic before a hard right turn in front of what is now (1999) PJ's Barbecue. The post assembly was probably removed in 1930, when OK 7 was moved. The first US shields posted in 1926 and 1927 indicated left and right turns in the numbered route by R's and L's in smaller US shields. Today we place just place arrows underneath the shield. Briefly in Texas, they placed arrows in the shield, next to numbers.

City U.S. Highway Shields: There was a second type of early US shield, approved for city use. It was smaller, at around eleven inches high and wide (11" x 11") as these two 1939 pictures Waco, TX 1939: From the Library of Congress Archivesfrom the U.S. Library of Congress archives show. The smaller city-use signs dropped the state name, and only placed US in the banner area that was formerly reserved for the state name. One example of this is the sign tree for US 77, US 81, US 84, TX 67 "BUSINESS ROUTE" that used to be posted in Waco, Texas (See left). Bannered US routes started coming into wide usage after the September 1934 AASHO meeting. Prior to that, a suffix of T had been used to denote Temporary routes, a designation that continues to be acceptable to this day as TEMP. Another set of early banner routes were the US 27A's of 1933 in Central Michigan, which became ALTERNATE US 27's, and now are Business US 27s. AASHO's strong dislike for split US routes with directional letter suffixes, like US 31E and US 11W, almost resulted in US 37 and US 143 being signed in Kentucky and Tennnessee. From the period's maps it looks like AASHO actually approved both new numbers, but the states preferred the suffixes which remain today. This "CITY ROUTE"' US 12 shield was posted in Chicago, Illinois. The 45 M.P.H. speed limit had been defaced at the time if the picture, showing that speed limits were unpopular with some people even then. One hundred and forty-eight miles per hour does seem a bit extreme for an urban highway. This highway this sign was posted along was mainline US 12 until 1938, so the US shield shown is fairly new.

Mid 1950's: In the mid 1950's, a new Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) changed the approved color for stop signs from black lettering on a yellow background to the now-familiar red background with white lettering. It apparently also authorized dropping the in-shield bannering, leaving just a number inside the US shield shape. Colors were not directly specified. Some states took the opportunity to change the color of the US highway shield as well. The state of Florida started color-coding its US shields in 1956, resulting in odd colors like on the US 94 and US 541 shields shown. US 94 US 541 Both routes were actually decomissioned @1950, the colors shown are hypothetical. FHWA was and still is is willing to let FDOT do this, as long as it is all Florida funded. Any US shields placed with federal money had to conform to the MUTCD. Throughout the 1980's, FDOT maintenance crews replaced new black on white US signs on new projects with FDOT color scheme equivalents. FDOT finally decided the expense of the experiment was too great, and ceased placing the colored scheme around 1994. New and replaced US highway signs are the standard black numbers on white background which the federal government will contribute to. Vesitiges of the old coloring scheme remain, primarily in urban areas. Due to Florida's aggressive sign replacement policy, you can expect few of these to remain by 2000.
You can see photos of Florida's unique colored US signs at James Lin's website and my Florida in Kodachrome site. Kansas and Arizona have also experimented with coloring US route signs. Rhode Island reportedly used a red and white US 1 sign like Florida's. Wisconsin also utilized colored US signs, Business / City US signs were yellow (Like in Janesville, WI in 1999), and WI DOT also may have used green and / or pink on US signs.

Today: Bartow 1994The states of California and Virginia use cut-out US shields, as opposed to the standard approved black square with a white shield. California even places US on some shields. The US highway shield is still the highly recognizable symbol of the road system that binds the country together, from doorstop to doorstop. US 66 was decommissioned in 1985. There has been such a demand to follow the old route between Chicago and Los Angeles that "Historic US 66" brown and white US shields are being posted in increasing numbers. The affection for the old road along the interstate is such that the states along the route have to protect the existing shields. Arizona had a brief problem with the new "Historic US 66" being stolen by souvenir hunters. Legally, US Route 66 may have been decomissioned, but it stayed in the hearts of those who lived and worked along its mostly two-lane alignment, and it stayed in the conciousness of America. Today the State of California is also using a modified US shield to unofficially bring back US 99 and sections of US 101 decommissioned in 1964. Arizona decomissioned or truncated many US routes in 1993, then reposted "Historic" on sections at the end of the 1990's.

Hawaii? Finethanky.Should we change the US highway shield? The shape itself is one of the most recognizable symbols in the nation, but it does not have popular, flashy coloring like the blue, white, and red of the Interstates. Click here to see my ideas to liven it up.

References :
"From Names to Numbers: The Origins of the U.S. Numbered Highway System" by Richard F. Weingroff, FHWA Information Liason Specialist, published in AASHTO Quarterly, Spring 1997.
American Highways April 1927, Vol. VI No. 2
Florida: Trails to Turnpikes 1919-1964 by Baynard Kendrick, 1964
Older MUTCD information, especially about the CITY shileds, Bob Ross

If you any have thoughts, comments, additions, suggestions, E-mail me or post it to the misc.transport.road newsgroup.

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Last update to this page on Wednesday, December 08, 1999 01:16:43 PM Eastern Standard Time.