On August 14, 1957, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) adopted the familiar red and blue shield design for interstate highway markers. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, had been impressed by Germany’s well-engineered Autobahn. He could see the value of a system of high-quality roads for the United States, as well, and through persistent efforts persuaded Congress to approve and fund the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The initial mileage to be constructed with federal funds was set at 41,000 miles, which was later increased. As of 2016, the interstate system covers 48,191 miles of American countryside.
The AASHO was given the task of numbering the new network of gleaming asphalt. They decided to use a mirror image of the numbering system created for the US highway system; low numbers would start on the West Coast (I5, etc) and then increase moving east across the continent. AASHO’s Executive Secretary, Alf Johnson, created a map of officially numbered routes, which was adopted in September, 1957.
But a design for a special sign to mark individual routes on this new transportation web was needed. AASHO decided to get state highway officials involved by inviting them to submit their own proposals – a contest of sorts. The best designs were installed on a road leading to the site of a highway officials’ meeting in Illinois. On their way to the meeting, attendees were asked to observe the signs, both in daylight and at night. Which ones did they like? Which were the most visible and easiest to read? Which ones said “Get out on the road and explore this great country!” to them? The AASHO gathered their feedback, and the Texas shield design was declared the winner, with the addition of the word “Interstate” across the top as suggested by Missouri (the “Show-Me” and also, evidently, “Tell-Me” state). The final design was approved on August 14, 1957. It has since been trademarked to prevent advertising signs from capitalizing on and diverting interstate motorists’ attention from the road ahead.
Image Credits: AASHO; Federal Works Agency