Sunday, December 31, 2006

Top 10 of 2006: #5 State's Oldest Route sign

Over the last 10 days of the year, I will be looking back at my top 10 posts of 2007. Some are included because of my interest in the subject, some because of their popularity with readers, some because I just thought they were well written.

While driving through Leominster one afternoon, I noticed what just might be the coolest thing on the highways and byways of Massachusetts. I wasn't the only one who thought it was cool, as I got a number of visitors thanks to mentions on Universal Hub and in's Starts and Stops blog.

August 14, 2006
Is this the state's oldest route sign?

Is this the oldest numbered route sign still in use in Massachusetts? Could it possibly be the oldest route sign in the country? I'm on a mission to try to find out...

I was driving down Main Street in Leominster last weekend when I noticed this old Route 12 sign attached to a lamppost downtown.

I am something of an aficionado when it comes to route signs (I have a collection of different signs from around the country that I have bought on eBay, and yes, that probably makes me weird) and immediately recognized that this was a rare sign. I've traveled across country more than once, driven all throughout the northeast, perused countless websites dedicated to road trips and highway signs, and I've never seen a sign like this "in the wild."

I had a decent idea that the sign was pretty old, but I decided to do a little more research in an effort to track down a date. I haven't pinpointed a specific year, but there are a couple of clues to it's general age:
  1. The old block typeface used to create the "12" on the sign was in use from 1927 when the first national standards for highway signage were introduced until 1948, when the recommendations changed to the rounded font that is used on most highway signs today.
  2. The use of "cat's-eye" reflectors to illuminate signs at night was introduced in the first Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) in 1935. The 1939 version of the manual recommended that all route signs be reflectorized using either the cat's-eye reflectors or another method.
  3. Other collectors of signs have dated Massachusetts signs with this numbering style and these reflectors to the "1930s or early 40s."
So I'm fairly certain that the sign was manufactured sometime between 1935 and 1948, and most likely it was created after 1939. Further, it almost definitely was not created between 1942 and 1945, as steel and other metals would have been used almost exclusively for World War II.

My next steps are to attempt to find some photographic evidence pinpointing a time period for this style of sign, if not a photo of Leominster itself with the sign posted.

To this point, I haven't had a lot of luck, although I have come across a couple of pictures of other towns that help date other styles of route signs. For instance, the book Building Route 128 features a number of photos from the period. Only a couple have route signs in them, but one photo from the early 1950s shows a white on black route sign using the modern font, and a photo from the late 1920s or early 30s shows a route 128 sign similar to our route 12 sign, but without the reflectors.

Since it looks like I have about exhausted my internet resources, my next destination is the Leominster library and the Historic Society to see if I can find any photos of town from that era. I will also keep looking to see if I can find any evidence that an older sign is posted anywhere in the state. I doubt it, it's unusual to still see route signs from the 1960s anymore, not to mention signs that go back to a pre-WWII era, and I have yet to come across any evidence that a similarly old sign exists. As for being the oldest route sign in the country still in use...there must be an older one somewhere, but again, I haven't seen any evidence of it.

If you know of a sign that predates this one and is still in use, or if you have photos from this era that would help nail down the date let me know.

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