Many of us use street signs every day whether we’re walking, driving or cycling, but have you noticed how many types and vintages there are? While we use them all the time, they’re generally overlooked.
The Early Years
In 1800s Toronto, historical photos of Yonge St corners show street names on signs fastened to buildings. They were pretty small, making them hard to read and depending on the type of structure, the street signs were placed at various heights, making them hard to find. Sometimes they weren’t even there at all. In the residential areas, street names were also added to corner fences or wooden posts.
Blue & White Street Signs on Businesses & Houses
Some of Toronto’s earlier street signs are the blue with white lettering enamel style attached to corner homes, shops and buildings. These have been in use for over a century, and several of this type can still be found around the city today.
These signs weren’t visible at night though, and citizens and visitors would still need to ask for directions. Even by day, citizens said they couldn’t be seen because they were covered in ivy or by an awning. It was thought that they were placed higher on the structures because people in horse-drawn carriages or the early style of automobiles would have sat higher.
Illuminated Glass Plates on Street Lamps
In the 1910s, there were decorative five-globe cluster lights on ornamental iron poles on Toronto’s busy downtown streets. Attached to the top globe were four glass plates with the names of the streets painted on them. While these were attractive and visible day or night, they were also easily broken.
Beneath the Street Lights
In the 1920s, to try and remedy the issue of the hard-to-see blue and white street signs on buildings, the city started placing them on “hydro” poles underneath the street light. The city came to an agreement with the Toronto Hydro Commission to mount new signs on hydro poles, but due to the costs, no real action was taken on it.
This old grievance of illegible street signs continued for decades affecting everyone from Torontonians to tourists. They were weather-worn, or they simply disappeared. Even taxi drivers were baffled. City Council candidates often made it part of their election platform.
Black and White Acorn Sign
In 1947, the city began testing out a new style of street sign at Toronto’s principal intersections. The sign had a white background with embossed black lettering and a separate black frame topped with a 3-D acorn. Along with bearing the street name, it also showed the number of the nearest building.
By 1948, the long campaign for better street signage was over. The neat and uniform signs were being installed conspicuously at street corners throughout the downtown area on their own metal standard. Streetcar riders and motorists could readily see them. They were later mounted to posts at intersections throughout the city’s neighbourhoods. This style was very popular and went on to have two more versions. The lettering was no longer stamped in the second form, while the third version (released in the 2000s) was a 2-D style, laser-cut reproduction.
The Illuminated Box
In 1964, Toronto’s first lighted street signs were installed at Queen St W and Bay St. The rectangular illuminated or back-lit box-style sign initially featured Toronto’s familiar blue background with white lettering and was later added to the major downtown intersections.
Within the next few years, the colours of the signs were updated to show the direction the street was travelling – the blue background with white lettering meant north-south, and the yellow background with black font stood for east-west.
These little gems couldn’t handle Toronto’s freeze and thaw cycle. They became an expensive nuisance between replacing the burnt-out bulbs to the metal boxes splitting open to the plastic breaking.
The last remaining one we found in the city was located on Danforth Ave and Logan Ave. It was taken down in 2020.
Neighbourhood Branding Style
In 1965, a special street sign designating Adelaide St E and Frederick St in the “1793 Town of York” neighbourhood was unveiled.
Throughout the years, a numerous assortment of decorative styles of street signs commemorating the various neighbourhoods began popping up all over the city.
The Latest Style
In 2007, the very visible and clearly legible street sign used today was introduced. It’s made from extruded aluminum and has three parts:
The highly reflective blue sheeting with reflective white lettering showing the street name. This part of the sign is retro-reflective meaning it reflects light back, glowing like a cat’s eyes at night when lit.
The upper curved “blade” of the sign are for neighbourhood, community or Business Improvement Area identification.
The lower “blade” shows the number of the closest street address.
On major Toronto thoroughfares with multilane cross-sections and higher speeds, more prominent signs 96 cm or 38 inches in length are used for better visibility. On local streets, the signs are 76 cm or 30 inches long.
Did You Know?
Hydro-powered street lamps began to be installed on Toronto’s streets in 1908.
During the 1920s, the city also started putting the house number on the hydro poles.
Before Toronto amalgamated in 1998, each of the other municipalities outside of the City of Toronto (Etobicoke, York, North York, East York and Scarborough) all had their own styles of street signs too.
Blue and white are the colours of the City of Toronto. The blue is Pantone 647.
Generally, signs are replaced by the city on an as-needed basis.
Did you know the city auctions off decommissioned street signs?
The blue and white enamel signs that are affixed to homes and businesses are no longer looked after by the city. It’s the property owner’s responsibility.
When John Graves Simcoe founded the Town of York in 1793, he ordered a road built to replace the ancient aboriginal trails that led north to Lake Simcoe and beyond. That road is Yonge St. One of the longest streets in the world, it extends over 1,890 km to Rainy River and is named after the British Secretary for War, Sir George Yonge.