A History of the American Route Marker and Route 66
The highway has become ingrained in American culture, with pop culture references in songs and cinema to famous routes throughout the country. The history of the signs alongside these highways is as rich as that of the routes themselves, with color-coded symbolism that has become second-nature for most U.S. motorists.
The route marker began along the Via Romana in Ancient Rome. Typically carved in stone, these route markers not only stated the name of the road but also told the distance to Rome. The expression “all roads lead to Rome,” originates in part from these road markers, as every distance indicator came from the Milliarium Aureum in the center of Rome. Over time, the materials used for route signage moved away from carved stone, transitioning to painted, wooden signs (almost all of which have decayed significantly since their use). This trend continued throughout the Middle Ages and well into the 18th century. Before the automobile, the only significant signs on the road were route markers, indicating the direction to nearby towns or cities and designating the name or number of the route.
With the universalization of automobiles, route markers became a greater necessity. Simple two-lane routes were originally the most common form of American roads, requiring designation with simple (and common) black and white, rectangular signage and demarcated numerically. However, the expansion of the road system to a large network of interstate highways forced the MUTCD to develop a more regulated system of route designation, drafting the protocol that is used today.
The shapes of route markers generally indicate the nature of the road and where it goes. For instance, interstate routes and highways are designated using a shield shape. While routes that remain in a certain state are rectangular. In general, interstate expressways are designated by red and blue shields, whereas standard highways or thruways are black and white.
Some American routes have become embedded into popular culture throughout the ages due to socioeconomic shifts and political movements. Perhaps the most common example of this is Route 66, one of the most adorned emblems of American history. Route 66’s emblematic status comes from its unprecedented, entirely-paved span and its passage through many states from beginning to end.
Route 66 was established on November 11, 1926 and was quickly labeled by many as the “Main Street of America.” Connecting Chicago to Los Angeles via a long northeast-to-southwest path also earned Route 66 the name “The Great Diagonal Way.” However, John Steinbeck gave Route 66 its most popular nickname in his beloved novel The Grapes of Wrath, deeming the route “The Mother Road.” The number 66 was chosen somewhat arbitrarily. It was commissioned at a time when the U.S. highway system was sparse; there were less than 60 numbered interstate routes throughout the country. Route 66 was originally going to be called Route 60, but there were interferences in various states with pre-existing roads. The number “66” was relatively unobtrusive and pleasant to say, and was chosen due to its double-digit memorability.
Route 66 was primarily popularized by mass transit from the Midwest during the time of the Dust Bowl, when droughts and dust storms plagued the nation. These events led desperate farmers to move away from their homes and seek refuse in Californian agriculture, although their economic tribulations generally did not improve. The term “Okies” was developed to describe farmers moving out west from lands such as Oklahoma in search of financial betterment, with Route 66 quite literally paving the way for the modern sociopolitical climate of California.
Along with trailblazing a paved path to agricultural salvation, Route 66 caused businesses to spring up along the route – businesses that flourished despite the hardships of the Great Depression. Guided by the iconic US 66 black and white signs, travelers helped to refuel the economic health of the United States by contributing to shops and motels along the road.
Despite Route 66 flourishing in its day, it witnessed the beginning of its decline in 1956 when large-scale interstate highways were developed. The indirectness and overcrowding of the route, along with its particularly precarious sections and disrepair, led to the eventual abandonment of the road and the businesses that thrived alongside it. Today, there are hundreds upon thousands of abandoned gas stations, motels, and restaurants alongside the decaying pavement. While Route 66 is now extinct, the route signage is still particularly popular, with original route signs often auctioned for high prices.
While American routes and highways may seem culturally irrelevant, Route 66 proved that route marker signs and American roads have a colorful history and an iconic significance in American culture, and there may never be an equivalent to the legacy of Route 66. The routes are ever-changing, but the signs have stayed the same.