San Francisco’s Street Signs: A Visual History

Ben Zotto
8 min readApr 27, 2021

A Detailed & Illustrated Compendium of Recent Designs (1921-present)

The Cable Car Museum’s gift shop, wall full of decommissioned signs, c. 2019.

San Francisco’s signature street signs have gone through a number of subtle revisions in design and typography. I’ve written at length about the complete history of street signage in the city going all the way back to the Gold Rush era, and even created a font based on my favorite sign lettering style.

In this article, I’m going to go into a bit more detail on just the variants of signage and typography. To make the comparisons clear, I’m going to use the examples of signage taken from just one street: Octavia. There were earlier signs along Octavia, painted on gaslamps, but I’m going to start with the era of standardized citywide signage.

FUN FACT: Octavia Street is named for Octavia Gough, the sister of Charles Gough. Charles was a city milkman (!) in the 1850s who wound up on the committee to name the streets of the newly-annexed Western Addition in 1855. He named one for himself, and one for his sister.

Blue Enameled Signs (1921–1946)

These signs were introduced in 1921, and were the first standardized and city-wide street signs. They were designed to be visible to passing motorists as the age of the automobile got fully underway. Approximately 22" x 5" in size, although this seems to have varied a bit. Held in metal frames on a pole, no block numbering. The type of street (here “ST.”) was included.

The signs were porcelain enameled in a layer of white with a masked layer of deep blue on top. The text was 3" tall.

Typography used only straight lines and angles, curves are represented by chopped corners as seen above. Text used varying widths depending on the length of the street name required. This type style was common in wayfinding in the early automobile era, for example on the signs erected by the California State Automobile Association seen around the state at the time.

The blue signs are sort of a deep cut in lost SF cultural history, and although you do come across them, they’re uncommon. You can still