26 May 2011

"...those big red R's and L's on fence post and telephone pole..."

A curious passage from Sinclair Lewis' novel Free Air:
She rarely lost her way.  She was guided by the friendly trail signs -- those big red R's and L's on fence post and telephone pole, magically telling the way from the Mississippi to the Pacific. (p.69)
The story involves a young woman's drive from Minnesota to Seattle in 1919.  I'm puzzled by the reference in the text to those letters on fence posts (which aren't mentioned again and are not important to the plot, but piqued my curiosity).

At first I thought the reference was to geology survey markers, like the "brass cap" above that I photographed in the woods in northern Minnesota, but those markers are driven into the ground; sometimes signs are posted on trees noting the location of nearby markers, but they don't fit Lewis' description.

Then I thought perhaps the reference was to railroad signage, which could be mounted on nearby telephone poles, but he also mentions fence posts.  And how to these letters "tell the way" across the western states?

I'm at a loss.  There's some historical trivia here which may or may not still exist.  I'll throw this out for readers, to see if anyone has seen (or knows of) such signs.

Addendum - A hat tip to charles for suggesting the Lincoln Highway:
In 1914, Effie Gladding wrote Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway about her travel adventures on the road with her husband Thomas. Subsequently, Gladding wrote the foreword to the Lincoln Highway Association's first road guide, directing it to women motorists. Her 1914 book was the first full-size hardback book to discuss transcontinental travel, as well as the first to mention the Lincoln Highway:

We were now to traverse the Lincoln Highway and were to be guided by the red, white, and blue marks: sometimes painted on telephone poles; sometimes put up by way of advertisement over garage doors or swinging on hotel signboards; sometimes painted on little stakes, like croquet goals, scattered along over the great spaces of the desert. We learned to love the red, white, and blue, and the familiar big L which told us that we were on the right road.
That should take care of the "L." Still working on the "R", and I'll see if I can find some pix.

Found one.  From Nebraska, presumably restored, dated 1920:


  1. My best guess is left or right turn markers for the next intersection. If they were on telephone poles and fence posts they probably weren't official highway signs, assuming there were any. Perhaps they were something commercial for bus or truck drivers traveling coast to coast. In 1919 I would imagine the roads, signage and the maps were poor and unreliable...

  2. By the powers of reddit:


    Let's see if TYWKIWDBI can seed as well reddit and not only the other way round :)

  3. ..I shall not click publish without proof-reading. Oh well ;)

  4. Good idea, Richard, but your link at Reddit doesn't seem to link to this post...or to anything?

  5. Yes, I fail to understand the reddit submission system. I suspect that once I enter a text description, the URL is simply silently ignored.

    I fixed the link, let's see if I can escape the hole of zero upvotes so the question gets some exposure.

  6. Here is a reasonable guess:

  7. I'd guess the Lincoln Highway and Red Ball Road, although the Red Ball blazes were a red dot and the Lincoln Highway markers had a blue L.

  8. Weird. I just saw a Lincoln Highway sign in Fernley, Nevada today and wondered what it was. Didn't think to make a note so I'd almost forgotten by now. Thanks!

  9. Wow, Richard. A definitive answer today at Reddit, with information definitely worth not just an update, but an additional post.

    Working on it...

    Many thanks!


  10. Tangent here, but I always find photos of other parts of the Old Lincoln Highway fascinating. I work near it, but toward the eastern end.

  11. I ran across the answer in someone's blog today regarding the Yellowstone trail (and it turns out I was driving on the section he pictured this morning!). It makes more sense in the context of the novel than the answer posted on reddit.

    Quoted from his blog:

    The Yellowstone Trail passed through Carver County; specifically, Victoria, Waconia, Young America, and Norwood. The Trail loosely followed the roads that are now Minnewashta Parkway, Highway 5 and Highway 212. Because the Trail used already-existing roads, a system of mapping the Trail was created. At first, stones and telephone poles along the Trail were painted yellow. By 1919, however, metal Yellowstone Trail signs were posted along the route. The background of the sign was yellow and the arrow pointed toward Yellowstone National Park.

    In a Trail brochure, travelers were told that "turns in the road are denoted by removing the arrow from the center of the mark and substituting 'R,' meaning right, and 'L' meaning left, denoting a turn in the direction indicated. Two R's or L's are used for each turn in the country, one being approximately one hundred yards before the turn is made, and the other at the turn."


  12. xcentric, thank you for the Minnetonka link. As soon as I get time, I'm planning a special post on the Yellowstone Trail, because when I was in high school, our house was on the Yellowstone Trail in Minnetonka. I found a photo of the road sign I used to walk past every day. I'll get it all blogged in a couple days, and I'll include the link you provided as well.

    This has been fascinating.

  13. I ran across the 2012 Guide to the Yellowstone Trail (through Wisconsin) at a tourist information booth in a rest stop on 94 outside of Menomonie. It is published by the same people who make the yellowstonetrail.org website and has impressively detailed maps, county by county. I remembered the discussion here and thought others might be interested in this publication.


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