STOP for Stop Sign History

It may may seem simple enough, but stop sign history shows a lot of work went into its red octagonal design.
stop sign history

As ubiquitous as it is universally recognizable, the stop sign has transcended the world of traffic to become the symbol used to warn anyone, inside a vehicle or out, to come to a halt. Stop sign history, however, shows the simple placard didn’t always have this much power. It took decades for stop signs to become commonplace and even longer for its design to be standardized.

Let’s take a look back at how the world’s most famous octagon came to be.

The Stop Sign Is Born

In 1867, at just 9 years old, William Phelps Eno experienced a life-altering event. The sight would be difficult to imagine today but was becoming all the more common at the time: a horse-and-carriage traffic jam. “There were only about a dozen horses and carriages involved, and all that was needed was a little order to keep the traffic moving,” he later wrote. “Yet nobody knew exactly what to do; neither the drivers nor the police knew anything about the control of traffic.”

Growing up in New York City in the late 1800s, Eno witnessed firsthand the chaos that was America’s nascent roadway system. When automobiles came around, the situation only got worse. The experience inspired Eno to devise numerous traffic-flow innovations – many still being used today – and earn him the title “The Father of Traffic Regulation.” He first suggested the idea of a stop sign in a 1900 article in The Rider and Driver, but it would be more than a decade until the first sign was installed in the country.

stop sign history
“Yellow State Highway Stop Sign” by Curtis Gregory Perry is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Stop Sign History Begins

The first stop sign in America was installed in Detroit, Mich., in 1915, although it would be unrecognizable to a driver today. It was a 2′ x 2′ white square sign with black lettering.

For the first several years of their existence, stop signs were made in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. (There was little, if any, regulation or standardization in the early days of U.S. roadways.) If an individual or group constructed a street sign, it was done so any which way they desired. This resulted in signs such as the 40-foot sign in Tennessee that read “DRIVE SLOW – DANGEROUS AS THE DEVIL.” Another – adorned with a skull and crossbones symbol – warned, “DANGER GO SLO.” Understandably, this all proved to be quite confusing for motorists.

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The Stop Sign Get Its Shape

In the fall of 1922, Wisconsin state highway engineer John T. Donaghey, Minnesota’s maintenance engineer Walter F. Rosenwald and Indiana’s Superintendent of Maintenance A. H. Hinkle traveled together throughout their home states, studying road signs in an attempt to develop universal designs.

The group created a plan, adopted by the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments in 1923, to classify street signs into shapes based on the level of danger. Since reflective paint hadn’t been invented, and there was little if any light on the road at night, they believed motorists could see the shape of the sign and act accordingly even if they couldn’t read the writing.

Before that point, most traffic signs were rectangular. So signs that provided direction or other regulatory information were kept rectangular. Signs that warned against the most dangerous situations – which at the time were railroad crossings – were circular. Stop signs fell in between and thus were given an octagonal shape.

In 1924, the American Association of State Highway Officials added a color element to traffic sign standardization. Members agreed that all danger and caution signs would be yellow, as this was the most visible color, particularly at night. Red was rejected as it would have been too difficult to see in low-light situations.

stop sign history
“Stop Sign” by ladybeames is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Red Stop Sign Arrives

Stops signs remained yellow all the way into the 1950s. While the color, on its own, may have succeeded in gaining motorists’ attention, the stop sign still had difficulty standing out because its color scheme was identical to all other cautionary signs. It was clear it needed its own design.

Traffic signals used red to signal motorists to stop for years, so using the color for stop signs as well was a logical choice. In 1954, the federal government revised the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, the national standard of traffic control devices, to change the stop sign to the one we know today: a red-and-white octagon.

But if traffic signals had been using red for decades, why wasn’t it used on stop signs much earlier? It was a matter of practicality. The color red fades and wears off easily, and no material existed that could make a red sign last outdoors for a considerable amount of time. As such, stop signs remained yellow into the 1950s in 47 out of the 48 states.

“California always used only red stop signs,” says Gene Hawkins, a civil engineering professor at Texas A&M University and expert on the history of traffic control devices. “They could do that because their stop signs were porcelain and were either illuminated or retroreflectorized with cats eyes or retroreflective buttons.”

Indeed, it appears the federal government was simply waiting for technology to catch up to the times. “It is generally understood that the original decision to standardize on a yellow background for the Stop sign, rather than on the more logical red, was based largely on the unavailability of red pigments that would not fade on exposure,” the 1954 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices states. “The recent achievement of dependable red finishes available in competitive materials, has made the red sign practical.”

What do you think of this brief look at the history of the stop sign? Did you learn anything new? Tell us in the comments. 

For more automotive history, head to AAA.com/YourAAA to learn about the origins of everything from seat belts to cup holders.

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49 Thoughts on “STOP for Stop Sign History

  1. Fun stuff to know but why do I think every post is from another retiree?. Be that as it may, now I am wondering where the triangular yield sign came from which I never wondered about before!

    1. While I cannot comment on the rectangular YIELD sign, I do remember white on blue YIELD signs in a hexagon shape in Brooklyn, 1950’s. The hexagon did not have equal sides, it was taller than it was wide.

  2. I still live on the street where I grew up, which had yield signs at either end when I was a child. The DPW had to replace them with stop signs because too many drivers had no understanding of the concept of yielding the right of way, and there were many collisions. I also remember when the shoulders were protected by concrete bollards with wire ropes running between them, instead of the Armco barriers that replaced them. And I still remember the flickering oil pots burning for days on end that warned of road construction.

  3. I appreciate the author’s research and ability to glean the important info into an informative and entertaining article.

  4. The last comment made me laugh, but also think about the most ignored traffic control device – the “Yield” sign. Might be a good article to remind us drivers of what you are supposed to do when encountering a yield sign.

  5. Given equivalent lighting, red is more visible at a greater distance due to the longer wave length of red light versus other colors. Thus at a typical intersection signal the red is the STOP and green is the GO.

  6. The stop sign is only as good as its visibility. I’ve seen so many stop signs obscured by low hanging tree branches or by bushes. Even if there isn’t a stop sign on a corner, one should always be prepared, knowing that an intersection is an accident waiting to happen. Especially if , like me, you ride a motorcycle, which is something motorists just don’t see.
    It’s good that I’m a careful driver because I know that the first time I miss a stop sign, there will be a police officer waiting for me.

  7. I like reading these obscure histories of things we see everywhere every day. The structure of what comprises our daily experience is very rich, but nearly always completely overlooked. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Very interesting information. We see these signs everyday and never think about the work that went into their creation. Good article. Thanks.

  9. When I was young in the “40s and “50s there were both “STOP” and “FULL STOP” signs. Rolling stop was a term sometimes heard. I’ve wondered if there was, in fact, a difference because getting in and out of 1st gear was so difficult in those older cars particularly in heavy urban traffic where you might have to “stop” at every cross street. My recollection is that my dad “stopped” at every intersection in Queens, NY whether there was a sign or not.

    1. Very interesting and informative. I can remember the yellow stop signs while I was growing up. I was also born in 1947.

  10. A remarkable history of the STOP sign. A very interesting geneology of it. And, educational, I might add. Thank you.

    1. Great article and very interesting. I was born in 1961 and was fascinated by traffic lights when I was 3-4-5-6 years old, so much so that I had my father buy me a toy traffic light. I liked them so much that I knew there was a special yellow blinking light at 162nd Street near Crocheron Blvd. and another off of Kissena Blvd near Booth Memorial Road. What I really miss are the real old fashioned traffic lights that were only red and green, no amber lights. There were a few around Bayside but through the decades they were removed for the standard red-amber-green lights.

      1. Back in the day there was also a yellow flashing stop sign at pigeon Meadow and 164th St. right on the corner by the cemetery

      2. I was born in 1960. I remember driving into Queens from Nassau with a bunch of my friends in the late 70’s and coming upon one of those traffic lights with no yellow. We had no idea what to do. Both the green and red were illuminated. Years later I discovered that that was a “form” of yellow

    2. Interesting article — but I consider it incomplete. I have travelled a lot around the world. In 1973 I was a mazed that in Baku, Soviet Union (our cold war enemy), to see a standard stop sign with the latin letters STOP instead of Russian (Bugarian) alphabet and Russian translation. One certainly should not expect all drivers there to understand English. Long ago I have seen a few stop signs with that word translated into the local language and local alphabet. The story needs to continue to tell how the standard stop sign took over the world.

      By the way, I take photos of road signs I find amusing. I have a photo from Albany of a now standard stop sign on it usual metal pole. Mounted immediately below on the pole was another sign, a rectangular black on white sign that said “NO STOPPING ANY TIME”.

    3. Interesting article. It’s a first draft. It needs to be edited for better organization. The data is quite interesting. There are so many facts about the development of the roadways and traffic systems of the USA. It would be great to see a series of articles and so appropriate for an AAA website.

    4. I find the article very interesting and like these bits of trivia. There are so many things we stop and wonder about and this is just one we probably never gave a thought. Keep them coming!!

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