Fog City Gothic

A Field Guide To San Francisco's Iconic Street Signs

There have been roughly three eras of street signage in the city by the bay: the pre-automobile era, which featured a wildly inconsistent and much-complained-about mess through the 1800s and early 1900s. Then came a few decades of good standard blue porcelain signs (1920s to late 1940s). And finally the signature black-on-white that appeared in the 1940s and is still with us today. [...]

Fortunately, we live among history today  --  not since 1950 has the city again undertaken a comprehensive sign replacement program. The SFMTA only replaces street signs as needed. So you can find nearly all of the black-on-white variants still in use around the city, easily spotted by walking a few blocks along any street. (The iconic embossed enamel signs eventually rusted beyond usefulness in the field. A small handful of examples were still mounted on poles as of about 2010, and it's possible one or two are out there hiding in plain sight.) [...]

It remains this author's hope that San Francisco will one day wake up from its stupor and re-embrace its signature design legacy, resurrecting the all-caps embossed lettering and rounded corners of the midcentury heyday.

He's also selling a recreation of the 1946 font for $5.

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4 Responses:

  1. Jacob says:

    Unfortunately, cities are not allowed to use signs like these any more, the Federal MUTCD regulations require very specific colors and lettering on street signs, and those old signs, no matter how nice they might look, can’t be replaced with similar ones, because the MUTCD specifies fonts, colors, borders, and shapes for signs in minute detail.

    • Ian says:

      Isn't it up to each state to adopt what they want from federal MUTCD? Santa Barbara's still doing their brown custom font signs

      • Jacob says:

        It’s true that individual states don’t need to adopt the MUTCD, but if a municipality wants Federal DOT money, you need to comply with it regardless of the state level regulations.
        Brown signs with white lettering are MUTCD compliant assuming the font meets the requirements, so it looks like Santa Barbara’s signs are MUTCD compliant.

  2. apm74 says:

    The town I grew up in had black text on yellow/gold signs (one of the early 20th century variants mentioned in the article), that's seems to be a rare combo nowadays and it always reminds me of home when I spot it.

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