History of the Stop Sign – Sign Wise
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History of the Stop Sign

Posted by Tayten Tullis on

The Stop sign is one of the most well-known and famous signs in the world. Almost universally the same no matter what road you’re on. It is always red, always with bold white letters no matter the language. The red color signifies danger and reminds drivers to stop, and then go once the path is clear. Yet the stop sign as we know it today wasn’t always as uniform and obvious as it is now. 

When four hooved hairy transports, usually know as horses roamed the streets, most signage were simple distance markers or directions to the closest city. However, once our hairy friends were pushed away by lumbering noisy automobiles, it become more important for road safety and traffic signs were born. 

The year 1915 rolls around in Michigan and the first stop sign appears on the streets. The new stop sign has square with a white background and black bold letters. At the time, these simple signs were enough for the traffic on the roads. Cars had not yet become mainstream, but as the famous Henry Ford and his quest to put automobiles in the hands of the working man became more powerful, the need for better signage appeared. By the late 1920’s cars had become commonplace among the roads and the US government decided that it was time to standardize traffic signs. Thus the familiar octagon shape appeared that is still in use today.  

Some may ask why an octagon? It’s somewhat of an odd shape for a sign considering the rest are either square or triangle but the American Association of State Highway Officials recognized the importance of a distinct shape. Since it was different than other signs on the roads, drivers could easily differentiate from the back of the sign and from the front. Quickly drivers could decide that opposite traffic will need to stop and they could prepare accordingly. Along with this, drivers needed a stop sign that could be recognized at night, as reflective signs weren’t around at the time to help with this.

Now time for another history lesson. Did you know the stop sign wasn’t always red? It first was white, then yellow, and finally the bold red we know today. Once the first white ones appeared, yellow followed once cars became more common, then in the mid 1950’s the sign received its final color change and has stayed red since then. The idea behind the change was that since stop lights were red, it would be an easy and logical change to have red stop signs. 

Old school style yellow stop sign and the current red stop sign:

old yellow stop sign     current red stop sign

Humans are animals of habit. We have come to associate colors with certain actions. Red and blue are on the opposite ends of the spectrum scale. This is why police and fire departments use these lights as our eyes can see these colors easily. Red became the color for stop, attention, and danger. Many lights at train stations, ships, and street signals became red to quickly alert passengers. 

 Along with the changes in stop signs the nation created a manual in 19535 to create a standard across the country. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, or more commonly known as MUTCD is still the national standard for all signs even today. It has become so standard that even in other countries it is easily to spot the stop sign. While other countries such as China, Russia, France, and many others have a different language on the sign, the octagonal shape and bright red color remain the same throughout.

During the same time period, many other changes were appearing on American streets. Some of those include:

  • 1915 First centerline is painted on a Michigan street
  • 1914 the very first electric traffic signal erected in Cleveland
  • 1918 Wisconsin becomes first state to install official route signs
  • 1920 very first three color traffic signal is erected in Detroit

Stop signs around the world: (Left to right)

1. Chinese    2. Japan    3. Cambodia

 Chinese stop signjapanese stop signcambodia stop sign

united arab emirates stop signargentina stop signCanada (Nunavut, Inuktitut language) stop s

4. United Arab Emirates   5. Argentina   6 Canada (Nunavut)


Purchase your own stop sign:


 As well as these signs, Sign Wise manufactures thousands of other signs including parking signs, safety signage, OSHA/ANSI signs, and much more. These signs are made with the highest quality of materials and made right here in the old US of A. If you’d like a quote or are looking for a custom sign please give us a ring at (877) 631-0197 or email us at sales@shopsignwise.com or check us out online at www.shopsignwise.com 

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