Signs of the Times

Signs are a critical part of driving. They tell us what road we’re on, how fast we can safely travel, what obstacles lie ahead, and how far we have left to the next major landmark. Road signage is especially important in a state like Florida, which hosts millions of tourists each year. After all, nothing ruins a vacation as quickly as getting lost, right?

As important as they are in the here and now, signs also have a history. Changes in road signage over time are in many ways reflections of changes in the broader history of the state.

Gateway and columns marking the Osceola County line (circa 1920s).

Gateway and columns marking the Osceola County line (circa 1920s).

When automobiles first came on the scene at the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t much precedent for how the roads would be signed. Cities and towns often signed their local streets, but seldom were the roads outside of town well-marked, and numbered routes like we have today were almost entirely unheard of. Animal-powered carriages and carts had no speedometers, so there was no use in posting a speed limit. The general rule was to drive sensibly, and ask for directions if you lost your way.

Automobiles made it easier for folks to travel farther away from home. They also traveled faster, which made driving more hazardous, especially on curves and near intersections with other roads and railroads. Some local communities began posting signs to help visitors find their way more easily. Businesses often did the same, combining safety messages and directional information with advertising.

A sign near Leesburg giving directions to nearby towns (1913).

A sign near Leesburg giving directions to nearby towns (1913).

It was awfully nice of Goodrich Tires to post this sign near De Leon Springs warning motorists to slow down, but notice they did a little advertising at the same time (circa 1915).

It was awfully nice of Goodrich Tires to post this sign near De Leon Springs warning motorists to slow down, but notice they did a little advertising at the same time (circa 1915).

One of the key characteristics of road signs during this period was the lack of standardization. Public and private entities made signs using whatever colors, shapes, and materials they believed suited their purposes. The result was a bewildering array of road signs so thick motorists often had to slow down or stop completely to read them.

Advertising signage located close to the roadway near Eustis (1917).

Advertising signage located close to the roadway near Eustis (1917).

This somewhat complicated sign warned motorists of an approaching railroad crossing along the Dixie Highway (1924).

This somewhat complicated sign warned motorists of an approaching railroad crossing along the Dixie Highway (1924).

Apparently some speed limit signs even came with attendants, like this one located in Tallahassee (circa 1920).

An unusual speed limit sign in Tallahassee (circa 1920).

Florida wasn’t the only state having this problem, and it wasn’t long before highway officials across the country decided it was time for a solution. In November 1925, the American Association of State Highway Officials met in Detroit and agreed upon a system of standardized highway signs to recommend to their respective states. Florida’s State Road Department chose to accept the suggested signage, and by the 1930s the signs along the state roadways were beginning to look more uniform. The Legislature also began restricting the number and placement of billboards to make things less confusing for motorists.

Standard road signs adopted by the State Road Department of Florida in the 1920s.

Standard road signs adopted by the State Road Department of Florida in the 1920s.

A State Road Department employee works on a batch of standardized railroad crossing signs at the Department's sign shop in Lake City (circa 1950s).

A State Road Department employee works on a batch of standardized railroad crossing signs at the Department’s sign shop in Lake City (circa 1950s).

A few additional changes have happened over the years. The signs marking U.S. highway routes, for example, were originally die-cut to be shaped like shields. These were later replaced by cheaper square signs with the U.S. shield and number printed on them.

In 1956, Florida implemented a system of color-coded U.S. highway signs to help motorists more easily follow their desired routes. The color-coded system was later discontinued because the colored signs faded faster and had to be replaced more often than the standard black and white ones.

A young girl stands in front of one of the old-style U.S. highway shields for U.S. 90 (1946).

A young girl stands in front of one of the old-style U.S. highway shields for U.S. 90 (1946).

Key from an official map published by the Florida State Road Department describing the color coding system for U.S. highways (1957).

Key from an official map published by the Florida State Road Department describing the color coding system for U.S. highways (1957).

Color-coded shield marking the end of U.S. Highway 1 in Key West (1986).

Color-coded shield marking the end of U.S. Highway 1 in Key West (1986).

As roads grew wider and speeds grew faster, it also became necessary to posts signs that would be highly visible from all travel lanes. This was especially important near exits and entrances on the freeways, so motorists could choose the correct lane well ahead of an intersection. As a result, signs became larger and many were placed overhead so they could be viewed more easily from the inner travel lanes.

Governor Farris Bryant (second from left) stands with a group of men in front of a large sign along a new section of Interstate 75 in Hamilton County (1964).

Governor Farris Bryant (second from left) stands with a group of men in front of a large sign along a new section of Interstate 75 in Hamilton County (1964).

Road signs are just one example of commonplace objects with a story to tell about Florida’s history. What other objects can you think of that have changed over the years? Start a conversation by leaving a comment below or sharing this post and your thoughts on Facebook!

Also, if you happen to live near Tallahassee or will be passing through sometime soon, stop by the State Library & Archives to have a look at our extensive map collection. Our holdings include a variety of local, county, and state highway maps dating back to the earliest years of the automobile age!

What’s In a Name?

About 200 yards below where the Withlacoochee River empties into the Suwanee lies the remains of the small town of Ellaville. This was once a thriving sawmill and manufacturing center owned by George Franklin Drew, Florida’s governor from 1877 to 1881. Very little evidence of the Drew home or the sawmill remains, but the place is still significant for another reason.

Three bridges cross the Suwanee River within sight of one another at this point. One carries the railroad, one carries U.S. 90, and one lies defunct, open only to foot traffic. This bridge, the Hillman Bridge, has perhaps the most interesting story of the three, because of the minor brouhaha that broke out over its name when it was first built in 1926.

Read more »

The Trials and Tribulations of the Early Automobile in Florida

The automobile is a beautiful toy,
And a useful one, too, as everyone knows;
But you really can’t count it an unalloyed joy
For it’s only a pleasure, as far as it goes.

Florida Highways, December 1923

These travelers struggle to free their car from the mud along a wooded stretch of early Florida roadway (circa 1924).

These travelers struggle to free their car from the mud along a wooded stretch of early Florida roadway (circa 1924).

While automobile use was on the rise in the 1910s and 1920s, state and local governments across the United States struggled to build the roads necessary for safe and speedy motoring.  Florida, with its unique and varied geography, posed some particularly daunting challenges for motorists and road builders alike.  The Florida State Legislature created the State Road Department in 1915, along with a fund to aid highway construction.  Fifteen percent of the money collected for automobile registrations was set aside to help support the new projects, along with a new property tax.

Despite the efforts of both state and federal governments to provide a system of good roads, however, curious visitors to Florida frequently ran into trouble getting from place to place.  Their enthusiasm for exploring the Sunshine State knew no bounds, but it would be a few years before the state’s road system could catch up.  The following photos depict some of the trouble Florida’s early motorists encountered.

The Tamiami Trail, which now carries U.S. Highway 41 across the Florida Everglades, was once a muddy quagmire for much of its route.  The highway was completed in stages, and these men were the first to travel across the unfinished portion between Fort Myers and Everglades City.  The group included one commissary truck, seven Model T Fords, and a new Elcar.  Only the Model T Fords managed to complete the trip (1923).

The Tamiami Trail, which now carries U.S. Highway 41 across the Florida Everglades, was once a muddy quagmire for much of its route. The highway was completed in stages, and these men were the first to travel across the unfinished portion between Fort Myers and Everglades City. The group included one commissary truck, seven Model T Fords, and a new Elcar. Only the Model T Fords managed to complete the trip (1923).

Another photo of the first group to cross the unfinished portion of the Tamiami Trail between Fort Myers and Everglades City in 1923.

Another photo of the first group to cross the unfinished portion of the Tamiami Trail between Fort Myers and Everglades City in 1923.

Harriet Bedell, an Episcopal deaconess, set up a mission in Collier City, Florida to minister to the Seminole Indians.  Getting around in this region was hardly a cakewalk, as this photo suggests (circa 1930s-1940s).

Harriet Bedell, an Episcopal deaconess, set up a mission in Collier City, Florida to minister to the Seminole Indians. Getting around in this region was hardly a cakewalk, as this photo suggests (circa 1930s-1940s).

Mikasuki Indians help Deaconess Bedell free her car from the mud in South Florida (circa 1930s-1940s).

Mikasuki Indians help Deaconess Bedell free her car from the mud in South Florida (circa 1930s-1940s).

Interested in the history of the roads in your county?  The former State Road Department’s publication Florida Highways is an excellent place to start your research.  Visit the State Library of Florida to get a look.

You might also be interested in our collection of photographs from the Florida Department of Transportation.