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History of the Stop Sign in America


The first recorded stop sign was installed in Detroit Michigan in 1915.  This sign had black letters on a white background printed on a sheet of metal. In 1922 the increased use of the sign led to the development of a committee to establish a common design practice for traffic signs.

The committee recommended the use of distinctive design shapes for signs, and the now familiar octagon shape was selected for the stop sign.  It was black on white and set as 24" x24" in size due to the presses used to manufacture the signs. The 1924 meeting set the background color as yellow. The committee was working under the support of AASHO and was rural dominated. Their results were published in 1925 as the Manual and Specifications for the Manufacture, Display, and Erection of U.S. Standard Road Markers and Signs. the manual was known as the Rural Signing Manual.

At the same time another group, The National Conference on Street and Highway Safety formed and began to address several issues.  The NCSHS developed the "Urban Traffic Control Devices Manual" and in 1930 published the "Manual on Street Control Signs, Signals, and Markings." This manual allowed 18"x18" stop signs and called for red letters on a yellow background.

Two committees working on uniform traffic control devices led to numerous conflicts.  In 1932, the two formed the Joint Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and in 1935 the group published the first "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways." The MUTCD was originally mimeographed but demand for it was so high that it was typeset and printed in 1937.

Nine revised and updated editions of the manual have been published since 1935.  These have made various changes in the stop sign.  The following is a brief history:

  1. 1935 MUTCD provided the 24"x24" octagon with red or black letters on a yellow background. Reflectorization was provided by "cat-eyes" in the word "STOP." another alternative was rear illumination to show through and identify the shape.

  2. 1939 MUTCD allowed the use of red "cat-eye" reflectors.

  3. 1942 "war time" edition added blackout requirements and encouraged the recycling of signs.

  4. 1948 MUTCD was the first to require reflectorization of all regulatory and warning signs.  It set the height of signs at 2.5 ft. above the crown of the roadway.

  5. 1954 MUTCD made a major change in the STOP sign. The background color was changed to red and the lettering was made white. The height was also changed to 5 ft. in rural areas.

  6. 1961 MUTCD was the first to require use of the standards as a requisite for receiving Federal funds. It also recognized the need for the sign to be seen and set higher minimum mounting height of 6 and 7 feet for urban areas. Special emphasis was placed on maintenance and visibility of signs.

  7. 1966 Congress mandated all traffic control devices on all roads open to the public were to be in conformance with the MUTCD.

  8. The 1971 MUTCD is noted by its definition of SHALL, SHOULD, and MAY. It also set the minimum mounting height in urban areas at 7 feet.

The 1978, 1988, and 200 MUTCD editions did not change the stop sign. The following is what the manual states:

"The current minimum requirements for stop signs are 30"x 30" octagon with white lettering and border on a red background.  The sign shall be mounted so to be visible for a minimum distance determined by the 85th percentile approach speed; at a minimum height of 5 or 7 feet and offset from the traveled way a distance appropriate for the specific location.  Larger sign sizes and different offsets are a part of the engineering study and design process that is required prior to installation.  The MUTCD does not require installation of stop signs.  It provides warrants which are minimum condition to consider installation."

Stop signs have come a long way since the early days, but their familiar color, shape and size, provide Americans, and the world with a  cost-efficient, and reasonably secure and safe means of intersection traffic control.

Thanks to Jacques Mabry P.E. and Leonard West P.E. for providing additional information.

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