Street Sign Controversy – 1899

The office of the New York street commissioner created considerable controversy in 1899 when it ordered that the illuminated street signs along some of Manhattan’s busiest thoroughfares be re-oriented.

The signs were square boxes with the street names painted in dark letters on white frosted glass and illuminated by electric light from within. One of these signs is visible in the photo above, which was taken on the southwest corner of W 14th Street and 5th Avenue, looking north along 5th Ave. The signs were originally oriented in the familiar way shown in the photo, with the street names parallel to the streets they named. A pedestrian walking along the sidewalk or a driver in the street could easily see the name of the approaching cross street.

This orientation was troublesome for streetcar riders, however, whose forward view was limited. As they moved at a relatively quick pace, the names of the cross streets were only visible for a short moment as they passed by the signs. It was reasoned that by giving the signs a quarter twist and facing the name of the cross street toward the main street, riders would have more time to read the signs as they passed by.

As might have been foreseen, New Yorkers had strong opinions on the change. A flurry of letters to the editor of the New York Times in the summer of 1899 run generally in opposition to the “twist.” Pedestrians walking down Broadway looked up and saw every corner labeled “Broadway” as they approached. Only by standing directly beside the sign – or out in the street – could pedestrians read the name of the cross street.

The matter was complicated further because not all the signs were changed and the street workers charged with making the change sometimes did not give them a full quarter twist.

The larger subject of Manhattan street signs came to a full head of steam at the turn of the 20th century and Manhattan borough president Jacob Cantor made it a priority of his office in 1902 to see every intersection properly marked. Cantor, who had run for office on the “fusion” ticket against Tammany Hall, ran into considerable obstruction. Cantor’s plan called for the addition of some 1,200 illuminated signs in addition to about 6,000 new enameled metal signs. The new signs were apparently oriented in the now traditional way and the “twisted” signs were either quietly twisted back or eventually replaced.


Photo scan from Ephemeral New York, “Three Centuries on Fifth Avenue and 14th Street.

Street Signs of New York.” Letter to the editor, New York Times, September 5, 1899

Change in Street Signs Good.” Letter to the editor, New York Times, September 10, 1899

New Street Signs Soon.” New York Times, August 2, 1902

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