Hwy 4A Signs Hwy 125   

Ontario's King's Highway signs are by far the most "majestic" signs in North America. Ontario has come a long way from the simple, modest Provincial Highway signs of the 1920s. Our modern signs are highly reflective, and significantly larger than their predecessors. The changes made to our signs over the past 75 years have been made out of safety, practicality, and cost. This section of the website is dedicated to the history of the actual route markers which have adorned the King's Highway System since 1930.
HWY 84

Ontario Provincial Highway Signs (Used from 1925 to 1930):

In 1925, Ontario's Department of Public Highways began numbering its roads. Until that time, little effort had been made to identify specific routes with the use of signs. Roads were simply known as the "Toronto-to-Hamilton Highway" or the "London-to-Windsor Highway". Such routes were often signed by local residents, private firms such as oil and tire companies, and associations such as the Ontario Motor League. Many of the signs on Ontario's roads until the 1920s were rather crude instruments of travel. In many cases, they were only "fingerboard" type signs, with a small arrow pointing the direction to the next major town or city. These signs were often made only of wood, and were seldom replaced if they fell down or were damaged in an accident. This motley collection of sign standards, coupled with utter confusion amongst motorists prompted the Department of Public Highways to take action. Small triangle-shaped signs were introduced on all Provincial Highways in 1925. The 3,000-kilometre provincial highway network was divided up into 15 distinct arterial routes (Highways 2 through 17, omitting #13) and two suffixed auxiliary routes (Highway 8A and 12A). The sign configuration was very simple. The signs read "PROVINCIAL HIGHWAY" followed by the route number underneath. At the bottom of the sign, the three letters "ONT" appear, in a vertical interlocking format. This is a picture of a Provincial Highway 3 sign, showing the sign layout:


HWY 3


The vast majority of these Provincial Highway signs were made of a porcelain enamel surface, applied to a steel backing. However, the earliest Provincial Highway signs were merely painted, and were not coated with porcelain. The painted Provincial Highway signs were produced on thin sign blanks made out of tin, with crimped metal edges similar to the edges seen on 1923 and 1924-dated Ontario license plates. The sign elements were embossed, or stamped into the tin. The embossing on these early Provincial Highway signs was very similar to Ontario's license plates produced after 1921, suggesting that these early Provincial Highway signs may have in fact been produced by a company who normally manufactured the province's license plates. The sign dimensions are 45 cm by 45 cm (18" by 18", at its widest point) and are black-on-white in colour. Neither the porcelain nor the painted tin Provincial Highway signs are reflective. The porcelain signs were also highly susceptible to chipping. The signs were damaged easily from stones and other sundry roadside debris flung at the signs from passing vehicles. Despite the large quantity of these triangular Ontario Provincial Highway signs manufactured (almost 5,500 signs were installed on highways by the end of 1929), very few have survived to this day. The porcelain signs are very scarce today, and are seldom seen. The stamped tin signs are very rare, with only a handful of specimens known to exist in collections at present. This is a picture of a painted tin Provincial Highway 7 sign, showing the sign layout. Note the embossed (stamped) lettering and route number:


HWY 7

Ontario King's Highway Signs (Used from 1930 to Present):

The Road to Reflective Signage

In the mid-1930s, the Department of Highways began experimenting with different types of reflective paint on both warning signs and King's Highway signs to improve nighttime visibility. The Department of Highways was justifiably concerned about the unfavourable statistics of nighttime driving on Ontario highways. In addition to the reflective paint signs, some "button-copy" signs were made with tiny glass or plastic "cat's eye" reflectors embedded or riveted to the sign along the route numerals or warning message. A.A. Smith, the Chief Engineer of the Department of Highways, reported in the 1937 DHO annual report that "considerable expenditure was made in improving road numbering and signing, with an increased use of reflector signs of various types." The new reflective signs proved to be successful, and their usage became more prevalent as the 1930s drew to a close. Most of the route markers on the newly opened Queen Elizabeth Way were made from reflective materials and/or "cat's eyes". A.A. Smith reported in the 1938 DHO annual report that "The use of reflector signs which decreases the strain of night driving was increased during the past year". Sign engineers became even more absorbed in replacing all older non-reflective porcelain enamel signs in 1939, when 3-M introduced Scotchlite. This modern, highly reflective material could now be applied directly onto a newly manufactured sign face. However, the replacement of the non-reflective signs was hampered in late 1939, with the outbreak of World War II. Beginning around 1940, chronic shortages of steel due to Canada's War efforts meant that very few highway signs were installed or replaced. During this down time, the Department of Highways sent many of its sign technicians to seminars on modern sign production. In 1947, it was noted in the DHO annual report that "Division chief sign painters were given their course in modern techniques of sign painting, including the use of silk-screen work and mechanical methods of applying reflectorized (sic) membranes such as Scotchlite." The metal shortages plagued the Department of Highways until 1950, when the Chief Engineer reported that sign production had resumed in proper, and that all new signs were fully reflective. In the 1950s, the Department of Highways began treating the signs with a special reflective coating which gave the signs a rather yellow appearance; however, this coating greatly improved the reflective properties of the signs. Reportedly, this special coating was actually a paint solution, comprised mostly of finely crushed glass beads. This image shows the progress made in sign reflectivity between the 1930s and the 1950s. I took the following photo at night, and the camera's flash clearly shows the contrasting reflective properties of these signs. Barely visible on the left is a porcelain King's Highway 9 sign from the 1930s. In the centre, there is a painted King's Highway 57 sign from the 1940s/early 1950s, and to the right there is a painted/treated King's Highway 55 sign from the mid-1950s:


Reflective Properties


The following picture is of a button-copy QEW sign with reflective glass "cat's eyes". This picture was taken in 1940, and was likely one of the earliest signs erected along the QEW:


QEW 1940


Highway Sign, Queen Elizabeth Way, Sheridan Diversion (February 20, 1940)
(Photo © Archives of Ontario  -  Series RG-14-162-3, Box A1352, Photo #2617S)

Small Size King's Highway Signs (Used from 1930 to 1962):


GROUP ONE - Used from 1930 to 1955
Small Signs with "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" legend:

In 1930, an act was passed which changed the designation of Provincial Highways in Ontario to "King's Highways". The reigning English monarch at the time was His Majesty King George V. At that time, all of the old Provincial Highway signage was replaced with signs bearing the new highway designation. The new King's Highway signs were quickly installed throughout the province. Over 9,000 of the new signs had been erected on Ontario King's Highways by the end of 1932. The King's Highway sign configuration was far more convoluted than that of its Provincial Highway predecessor. The new signs were redesigned, and a cut out "shield" style sign was introduced. To reflect the new regal designation, a crown was added to the top of the shield. The crown was very intricate, even showing renditions of individual jewels and pearls. This resulted in a unique, highly irregular, but very recognizable sign shape. The signs read "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" followed by the route number underneath. At the bottom of the sign, the vertical interlocking letter format of "ONT" was discontinued. The letters "ONT" appear in a horizontal line below the route number on this sign type. This is a picture of a "Group 1" King's Highway 7 sign, showing the sign layout:



HWY 7


The earliest of the "Group 1" King's Highway signs were made of a porcelain enamel surface, applied to a steel backing. The sign dimensions are 47 cm by 30 cm (19" by 12", at its widest point) and are black-on-white in colour. The porcelain enamel signs were highly susceptible to chipping. The signs were damaged easily from stones and other sundry roadside debris flung at the signs from passing vehicles. However, the biggest problem with the porcelain enamel signs was that they were not reflective, and thus were hard for motorists to see at night. The porcelain signs were phased out in the late 1930s and 1940s. Later signs of this type are made of various reflective material applied to a steel backing, as described in the preceding paragraphs. These reflective signs were generally produced after 1937, exclusively. The most recent signs in this group (1950s) have a distinctive "yellowed" look to them. This was due to a special treatment applied to the signs to make them even more reflective, like this example:



HWY 3C



GROUP TWO - Used from 1955 to 1960
Small Signs without "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" legend:

The passing of His Majesty King George VI in 1952 created an unfortunate situation for the Department of Highways. The presumption of the naming of "The King's Highways" was that the reigning monarch was generally a King. However, shortly after the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, it was decided to remove the legend "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" from all highway signage, in recognition of the new Sovereign. Signs made between 1955 and 1960 made no reference to "The King's Highway" designation, despite the fact that the roads were known officially and legally as King's Highways. Also, the province's name "ONTARIO" was spelled out on these signs, as opposed to being abbreviated as "ONT". The sign dimensions were still 47 cm by 30 cm (19" by 12", at its widest point) and were black-on-white in colour. These signs were made exclusively of reflective material applied to a steel backing. Porcelain enamel highway signs were by that time obsolete, and were thus not seen in this sign group. This is a picture of a "Group 2" King's Highway 8 sign, showing the sign layout (Photo Courtesy Brian Weaver):



HWY 8



GROUP THREE - Used from 1960 to 1962
Small Signs with "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" legend restored:

In 1960, it was decided to reinstate the legend "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" on the signs. The legend had been omitted for several years during the 1950s, after the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. A notable change was made to the signs at that time. The legend appeared in one continuous line, as opposed to the previous practice, which saw the legend broken onto two lines. As with the Group 2 Signs, the province's name "ONTARIO" was spelled out, as opposed to being abbreviated as "ONT". The sign dimensions were still 47 cm by 30 cm (19" by 12", at its widest point) and were black-on-white in colour. This is a picture of a "Group 3" King's Highway 5 sign, showing the sign layout:



HWY 5


This last group of small size signs was phased out in the early 1960s, as they were difficult to see when motorists passed the signs at high speeds. In 1962, the small-size signs were removed altogether from the Department of Highways' sign manual, rendering them obsolete. All crown-shield signs made since 1962 have been the large size signs, as described below.

Large Size King's Highway Signs (Used from 1955 to Present):


GROUP FOUR - Used from 1955 to 1960
Large Signs without "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" legend:

In the 1950s and 1960s, increased improvements in the highway system brought about higher speed limits. On controlled access freeways, the speed limit was set at 70 m.p.h. (113 km/h). The Department of Highways quickly learned that motorists could not see the King's Highway signs properly at that speed, especially at night. This was despite the fact that improvements had been made in the reflective properties of King's Highway signage. It was decided to make the crown shields significantly larger to improve visibility. In 1955, a new size sign was introduced on the 400-series freeways, and other high-speed arterial routes. These new signs were 64 cm by 45 cm (25 5/8" by 18", at its widest point) and were black-on-white in colour. This is a picture of a "Group 4" King's Highway 55 sign, showing the sign layout:



HWY 55


All of these signs were made from reflective material, affixed to a steel or aluminum backing. At first, the large size signs were used only on freeways and arterial routes with high speed limits. The older, small size signs were still used for lower speed arterials and most rural highways. In 1962, it was decided to adopt the large size signs on all King's Highways. The small size signs were quickly phased out, and were entirely replaced by the new signs. The large size signs are still in use today, their size more or less unchanged.



GROUP FIVE - Used from 1960 to 1993
Large Signs with "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" legend:


In 1960, the designation "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" was restored to the highway signs. Very few modifications occurred to the sign layout over the next three decades. During this time, the Department of Highways departed from the use of paint on signs, and began to rely more heavily on the use of vinyl, with reflective properties. Even the route numerals began to be made from black vinyl, as opposed to the painted numerals seen on older signs. Signs from the 1960s generally have a "yellowed" look to them, as they were actually painted/treated signs. Beginning in the 1970s, the use of vinyl and silk-screening became widespread. The newer signs tend to look very "white", when compared to older signs. The Group 5 signs are by far the most common type of King's Highway sign, having been in use for over three decades without any major modifications to the design. Here is an image of a Group 5 King's Highway 2 sign:



HWY 2



GROUP SIX - Used from 1993 to Present
Signs without "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" legend:

In 1993, the Ministry of Transportation (the successor of the Department of Highways) began the process of removing the legend "THE KING'S HIGHWAY" from highway signs, leaving only the word "ONTARIO". This was done to make the signs bilingual, and to lessen the regal overtone of the highway's designation. The transition is still taking place to this day, and there are still thousands of the older (Group 5) signs still on the road. However, all signs made since 1993 are of the new Group 6 design. As the Group 5 signs get old or are damaged, they are being replaced exclusively with these new Group 6 signs. Despite some opposition from members of the public who disagree with this break from tradition, the Ministry of Transportation intends to convert all of Ontario's signs to this new format over the next few years. Group 6 signs can be easily distinguished from the old Group 4 signs made in the 1950s by studying the sign materials. The Group 6 signs made over the past few years are produced with a thick vinyl silk-screened face, and have black vinyl numerals. The Group 4 signs from the 1950s are painted signs, with numerals applied to the sign with black paint. The reflective properties of the Group 6 signs will be obviously superior to the old Group 4 signs. Technology and innovation has come a long way over the past four decades! The following picture is of a Group 6 King's Highway 36 sign, without "The King's Highway" legend:


HWY 36



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