Vintage Traffic Signs  

Collecting vintage traffic signs

Route 66 Vintage Signs
This cat’s-eye Route 66 sign originally hung in Oklahoma; it’s one of John’s prized possessions.
We had the opportunity to ask John, also known as Signalfan, a couple of questions about his traffic signal collection. He’s been collecting since the early 80s and has had a love for signals and signs for far longer than that; today, John operates a website and club for fellow enthusiasts to view and discuss signals and signs.

KH: How long have you been collecting traffic signals for?
J: I have been collecting traffic signals, signs, and other related items for about 30 years. Most of my collection was obtained from about 1982 till about 2007.

KH: What do you look for in a sign? Will any traffic signal do, or do you look for specifically unique pieces?
J: For signs, I look at approximate age and visual interest. Sometimes I will purchase a newer sign because it is visually an interesting sign. For example, the symbol sign "signal ahead" with the picture of a traffic light is an interesting sign to see up close.

KH: What do you have in your collection now?
J: Presently, I have 102 signals. Many of those are of the older 4-way style with 4 signals in one "box". There are also signals that are more "ornate" and have more ornamental details on their face. Others look more standard from the outside, but inner reflector designs and lens types are different.

KH: Where does your impetus to collect signs come from?
J: I was interested in signals from early childhood. I always had signal and sign toys to play with, and as I grew older, the passion grew to collect real ones and have them "up close" to enjoy.

KH: Can you project the value of your collection?
J: No, not exactly. Value is in the eye of the beholder and I don't collect for their value.

KH: How do scarcity and weathered-ness impact value?
J: Scarcity is a factor in value, of course. The fewer out there, the more "valuable" a signal. But again, it depends on where the demand is coming from. Weathered-ness can be a factor depending on the signal condition. If the parts are all there, that is more valuable than if the signal is missing paint or even fully restored. Some people, including myself, prefer weathered signals vs. restored ones. Others prefer them to be already in display quality condition.

KH: How have the signals, their appearance, their material, and their function changed over the years?
J: Signals changed dramatically during the early years of the 20th century, but have pretty much stayed the same for the last 70 or so years.

KH: As someone who has marked the change in traffic signals over a century, do you have any predictions on future changes or improvements?
J: I think signals will be with us for a while. There may be some roadway changes like grade separations or traffic circles to eliminate signals, but as long as there are people driving personal vehicles, there will need to be signals to protect the intersections. Full automation of vehicles probably will never be practical.

KH: Do you find many people with traffic sign and signal interests?
J: I have met quite a few fellow "signal fans" over the years. Some even felt they were the only ones out there until they stumbled upon my website. We have a club with about 200 or so signal and sign enthusiasts from around the country and world. There are more out there than I ever realized when I first set up my website in 1997 and club in 2000.

KH: What would you like to do with your collection and what have you done in the past?
J: Just enjoy it for now. I also enjoy showing it to people who happen by and have an interest in the "offbeat" museums.

KH: Do you have your eye on a specific piece to add to it?
J: No, my collection is pretty much complete at the present time. I also have a passion for HO scale model railroading and my layout encompasses the remaining space in the museum.

    We also spoke with Steve Salcedo about his vintage sign collection, which includes over 800 street signs. His website serves as a virtual gallery of his collection, which he is continuously supplementing. The gallery can be viewed here.

KH: So when did you start collecting, Steve?
SS: Signs have always been fascinating to me, as early as when I was young and I would make my mom read the large green overhead signs as we drove down the highway. As I got older, I developed an interest into many things vintage, from old records all the way to abandoned bridges and railroads. I am now a web designer, and I realized that the uniform system of street sign design in the U.S. is an awesome aspect of graphic design in and of itself. It's nice that signs and signals are of a size that I can actually collect them.

KH: What are you after when you’re shopping for a new sign?
SS: It varies. Sometimes I look for signs because of their age; some are appealing because of their character (their size, how weathered they are, etc.). Others because they were made prior to today's standards, and are no longer made this way – for instance, interstate shields used to list the state name above the number, like "Interstate Indiana 65" – but state names are now omitted. It’s more interesting to me when I know the history of the sign, or where it came from. I'm particularly interested in pieces from cities I’ve lived in.

KH: What does your collection consist of these days?
SS: I have a bit of everything – signs and signals from the 1930s, all the way to brand-new signs made last year, bought direct from the manufacturer. [I] probably [have nearly] 800 street signs, and only around 20-25 or so signals - pretty tame compared to other collections I've seen online.

KH: If you don’t mind my asking, do you know how much your collection is worth?
SS: Not really, but I do need to look at insuring it, which will force me to put a dollar amount on it.

KH: Do you look for scarce signs? Weathered ones?
SS: Scarcity definitely impacts value. The Internet has been helpful and hurtful for me – helpful because used/vintage signs are more accessible; hurtful because they’re accessible to a lot of people, which drives up the price. I suppose the weathered look depends on personal preference. I like signs that show a lot of character and signs of age from being out in the elements for a long time. Typically this tends to negatively impact value during resale, which is great for me.

KH: How have signs and signals changed with the years?
SS: Signals have gone through quite a few changes over the years. Just speaking in terms of the standard three-light signal, which started as a solid-steel, 4-directions-in-one unit with 8” glass lenses, to today where they’re plastic, one-direction units with LED lenses. Signals have changed to be more visible, safer, energy-efficient and cheaper to produce. Prior to the invention of the three-light signal, there were all sorts of iterations of traffic signals, some of the earliest being stop/go paddles operated by a traffic control officer. The three-light signal brought standardization to it all.

KH: Do you run into many other collectors?
SS: Never locally or in person. Only online. The Internet has made it easy to connect with other folks who have the same interest, after going many years thinking that I was the only one…

KH: Any big plans for your collection?
SS: Right now, most of my collection is scattered in storage. My ultimate goal would be to have a space on my home or basement just for centralized storage… I’d love to build a shelving system much like the street departments use – think of how vinyl records are stacked vertically, and organized by category.

KH: Any special piece caught your eye lately?
SS: I usually don’t hunt for anything super specific – if you do, you set yourself up for disappointment. My collecting ebbs and flows. I’ll go a few months without buying anything, then buy 8 in a row. It just depends on where I am, what’s being offered, and if I want it or not. I’m grateful for all the signs I’ve gotten so far, both buying and people giving old stuff to me. Most times, my greatest treasures are things that other people found and routed to me.