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Story and Photographs by Jean Bevier

Article first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 37, Issue 4, Winter 2012)

Photo by Jody Zamirowski

For twenty years I’ve dreamed of taking the Great American Roadtrip. Last year during a sabbatical, that wish came true.

Whenever I travel, I use my camera as a kind of visual journal, accumulating a large collection of images that include letters, words, colors, and textures. Because of this, I’m interested in a particular layer of typographic history in the landscape: advertising signage along the road, specifically from the 1930s through the early 60s. 

This era is the time when Americans first began to travel the country in earnest by car. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 transformed many dirt roads into a nationwide system of reliable, hard-surfaced highways. People became mobile. Car production was growing. For the first time, the average American had the means to explore the United States on their own. The controlled, linear experience of travel by rail was now contrasted by the chance to create a personally determined schedule along the open road.

Many of these early highways were called Named Trails, such as the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first coast-to-coast road. There were some great ones: The Black and Yellow Trail, (Chicago to Yellowstone National Park, U.S. 14), The Dixie Beeline, (Chicago to Nashville on U.S. 41), and The Old Spanish Trail, (St. Augustine, Florida, to San Diego on U.S. 70, 80 and 90).

As this system of roads grew, so did the need for a logical and consistent system of designation. For the original network of roads it was decided that the north/south routes would end in 1. This begins with U.S. Route 1, which runs down the Atlantic coast and ends with U.S. 101, which runs along the Pacific coast. East/West routes were designated with 0 endings. The Lincoln Highway, for example, mostly exists along the current U.S. 30. And of course, there’s Route 66.

Clockwise from top: Bahr’s Motel, Floodwood, Minnesota; Balyeats Coffee Shop (Young Fried Chicken), Van Wert, Ohio; One Stop, Delhi, Colorado; Bar Q Motel, Sidney, Nebraska; Camping, Mongo, Indiana.

A newly mobile American public needed services and wanted amusement along their traveled routes: restaurants, motor courts and motels, service stations, souvenir stands, and curiosities. Enterprising towns advertised their businesses to motorists who might be getting hungry or ready to stop for the night. These businesses flourished because the original U.S. Routes went through the heart of these communities, allowing travelers to experience the character of each town.  

Intersecting these towns obviously increased the time it would take to get from Point A to Point B. As with all growth came the necessary evolution of the American highway. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 created the major interstate system… super highways designed for efficient and speedy transport of people and goods. Many of these run parallel to the old U.S. Routes (such as I-80 and U.S. Route 30) but were designed to bypass towns and cities. These interstates effectively cut off the life-blood of the small businesses geared toward accommodating traveling motorists.

Many of the businesses that had once been part of the journey became obsolete, eventually replaced by the convenience and predictability of a cluster of franchised motels and restaurants at the interstate exit.

Last summer and fall, I covered as many of these original highways as possible, making a daily log of each photograph I took. I soon realized the importance of keeping that record. After several thousand miles, it would have been impossible to reconstruct where I had encountered any one sign.

Clockwise from top left: Hot Dog, Yarnell, Arizona; Superior, Caveland Motel, Cave City, Kentucky; AAA, Caveland Motel, Cave City, Kentucky; Modern Cabins, Alanson, Michigan; Only Motel, Urbana, Ohio.

My goal in this project was to explore the original U.S. Routes to see what was left. What hasn’t been torn down, sold on American Pickers, or simply fallen apart is still out there in various states of decay.

I discovered that I would not find much in larger cities, with the exception of the occasional beloved hometown hamburger joint or café. The real estate is simply too valuable and much of what might have been on the outskirts of town has long ago been bulldozed to make way for new businesses. What I did find is mostly in smaller cities, rural towns, and lonely outposts… places where the land is not in large demand and so there’s little incentive to re-develop these properties.

I traveled to 27 states and drove over 20,000 miles in search of what remains. Since there are parts of the country I haven’t yet explored, I’ll continue with the project this summer. With the exception of one excursion south, I drove these miles alone. An unanticipated result was that the project became a deeply contemplative experience. Besides, I was continually hitting the brakes, turning around, getting out to shoot, writing in my log book… it would have been crazy-making for any companion who wasn’t as excited about this stuff as I am.

I was intentional in my choice not to use a GPS. I had a road atlas and stopped to buy state road maps along the way. In part, I wanted to explore, discover, and find my way as did earlier road travelers. Mostly though, my decision was because I didn’t want a GPS device to “chew my food and spit it out” in small segments ... leaving me no need to make decisions and see the bigger picture. At all times I wanted to know where I was in relation to other places.

Clockwise from top left: Paul’s, Kentucky; Thank You Come Again, Morgans Gap, Kentucky; Service, Lordsburg, New Mexico; Windmill Restaurant, Lovelock, Nevada; Restroom sign; Indiana.

As you can see by the images, I chose to photograph the signage during the day to show the true state of disrepair that exists. While some of the signs still have working neon, a night shot would have masked their decay. I found the faded, rusted and broken signage beautiful, though. They’ve become compositions made by time and weather layered into the original intention of the sign’s message. Among my favorite finds were signs that were handmade or hand painted, such as the odd but charming little restroom sign with each letter crudely carved out of wood, the Thank You Come Again sign leaving Mortons Gap, Kentucky and Paul’s, a store sign with the name scripted from rope.

While on the road, I wrote in a journal during dinner each evening. I mostly tried to record specifics from the day. My journal also helped me get used to eating dinner alone in unfamiliar restaurants. Through my travels I found that a major theme emerged. When I began this project, I believed I was drawn to it because I identified with the pioneers: those souls who venture forth to discover what there is to discover. This belief was especially strong while traveling through the wide-open beauty of the Great Plains. But somewhere in the journey I had a change of heart. 


I’m anxious to get back on the road as soon as I can. I’ve recovered from being road weary and longing for home. Besides, the typographic history that I’m looking for is disappearing every day and when it’s gone, an important layer of cultural and graphic design history will be gone with it.

Clockwise from top: Port Motel, Chapman, Pennsylvania; Texaco/Standard, Indiana; Souvenirs, Tama, Iowa.

Jean Bevier is an emeritus professor of graphic design at Dominican University.

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