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Unravelling hieroglyphs : Urban traffic signs and the League of Nations

Frank Schipper


Cet article porte sur les enjeux de signalisation routière pendant l'entre-deux-guerres. Il esquisse d'abord la relation souvent difficile entre l'automobile et la ville d'une part et la société en général. Il revient sur le rôle de la signalisation routière dont la mise en place a contribué à encadrer ces rapports. À la veille de la Première Guerre Mondiale, des milliers de panneaux décorent déjà les routes européennes. Depuis la guerre, la nouvelle Société des Nations réussit à s'accaparer les discussions sur la signalisation routière au début des années 1920, puis commence ses travaux sur la signalisation routière spécifiquement urbaine à partir de 1926. La Conférence Européenne sur le Trafic Routier en 1931 est le sommet de ce mouvement. Le système n'a pas changé fondamentalement depuis. A l'inverse des propositions des représentants urbains, la SdN n’est cependant pas devenue le coordinateur central des problèmes de signalisation routière. L’article conclut par nuancer la qualification des panneaux routiers comme des hiéroglyphes par le journaliste français Baudry de Saunier en 1931.

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1Acknowledgements : I presented an earlier version of this paper at the 3rd conference of the European Network in Universal and Global History in Dresden, 3-5 July 2008, and presented parts of it at the 11th Annual Economics of Infrastructures conference in Delft, 14-15 May 2009. Its contents draw on my dissertation Driving Europe, particularly chapter 4. My PhD research formed part of a larger project called "Transnational Infrastructures and the Rise of Contemporary Europe" (, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research NWO (dossier nr. 277-53-001). I thank project members Irene Anastasiadou, Alexander Badenoch, Vincent Lagendijk, Suzanne Lommers, Johan Schot, and Erik van der Vleuten for inspiration and debate.


2Louis Baudry de Saunier was a well-known journalist in his days. As one among the 'Parisian oracles of the automobile press' (Bertho Lavenir, 1999 : 109), he was a force to be reckoned with. He assessed traffic signs for the French journal L'Illustration after an international conference in 1931 had taken place to discuss their standardisation. His article wholeheartedly welcomed the fact that the League of Nations, convener of the conference, had taken up traffic signs as a first step towards achieving the discipline that was in his view desperately needed on the road. Still, he also proclaimed his deep admiration for those motorists who actually managed to comprehend the jumble of signs in use, characterising it as a 'tower of Babel' consisting of mere 'hieroglyphs' (Baudry de Saunier, 1932).

3And yet motorists today by and large seem to have mastered the skill of deciphering those hieroglyphs, both at home and abroad, despite the staggering variety of shapes, colours and symbols that still exists (Colors Magazin, 2004). Traffic signs tell us where to stop, indicate where we can find a place to park our vehicle, or limit the speed with which our automobiles are allowed to drive. Tim Edensor has linked the variety in traffic signs to national identities, identifying traffic signs and driving habits as part of national roadscapes that have organically grown in respective nation-states (Edensor, 2004). Drawing on Billig's notion of 'banal nationalism' (Billig, 1995), he discusses how the nation is embedded in everyday driving practices and in artefacts forming constituting elements of the system of automobility. Between states, Edensor continues, important differences have remained of which we become suddenly aware when we cross national borders.

4Recent work on the introduction of urban traffic lights, however, points in a different direction. Hans Buiter and Peter-Eloy Staal have explored the introduction and diffusion of traffic lights in Dutch cities in 1920-1940 (Buiter and Staal, 2006). In contrast to an earlier interpretation of the spread of traffic lights systems as a process of Americanisation (McShane, 1999), they note that discussions in the League of Nations importantly affected the development from a broad variety of local solutions towards standardisation in the 1930s, shaping expectations on which standard would triumph in the end. The outcome thus steered local decision-making. In addition, municipal authorities commonly shared experiences through national and international contacts and choices made elsewhere inspired them (Saunier, 2002 ; Hård and Misa, 2008).

5These insights on traffic lights suggest Edensor might be overly zooming in on national differences while downplaying the essentially local origins of traffic solutions in the urban realm. It suggests a degree of national homogeneity initially not supported by within-nation divergence. At the same time he disregards the emerging global consensus with regard to traffic solutions, as mediated through the League of Nations. Traffic signs look more similar today than they have perhaps ever done, despite the differences that remain. The aim here then is to explore the forces pushing towards homogeneity and heterogeneity simultaneously. Time-wise the article focuses on the Interwar years, when the groundwork for the current traffic sign system was importantly advanced. Although traffic signs pre-date motorisation (Flonneau, 2005 : 68 ; McShane, 1999 : 395-396), they became an important topic in international negotiations concerning cross-border road traffic mainly thereafter.

6The League of Nations has been singularly important in this respect, expanding on the international standardisation of traffic signs started in the early 20th century in other dedicated international organisations. As such the organisation was important in advancing international standards, crucial for the well-functioning of modern complex societies and for infrastructure development (Schueler et al., 2008). The League emerged as the prime machinery for collecting information on traffic solutions across the globe and disseminating it. Municipal authorities as represented through the International Union of Towns (IUT), automobile- and touring clubs were involved in its discussions on mobility. The article thus wishes to contribute to the current reassessment of the impact of the League. Long written off as a failed institution, recent research has sought to nuance that image.

7By focusing on the work done in the League of Nations, this piece intends to be a contribution to the current surge in the study of the history of international organisations as a contribution to transnational history-writing (Clavin and Wessels, 2005 : 266). It not only adheres to the view that international organisations have been crucial agents in shaping the modern world (Iriye, 2002), but also takes international organisations as fruitful research sites for infrastructure-related work (van der Vleuten e.a., 2007), a claim backed-up by recent work on infrastructure history in relation to ideals of European integration (van der Vleuten and Kaijser, 2006). Although the research site does not allow the investigation of the application of traffic signs in particular urban settings, it does bring urban voices forward as mediated through organisations like the IUT.

8The empirical basis for this undertaking consists of the rich archives of the League of Nations, located at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the former seat of the League. In order to develop a firm grasp of this thematic, the next section briefly sketches the sometimes antagonistic relationship between the automobile and social life on the urban scene and beyond. We then move to the seat of the League of Nations in Geneva, site of the most important traffic sign discussions that have provided the basics for traffic signs as we still know them today. Two sections deal with the League, the first discussing how road traffic was taken up there, the second throwing its light on the rise of a distinct urban focus in its work on road signs and road traffic in general. The conclusion gets back to the 'tower of Babel' metaphor and reassesses its adequacy.

Automobiles and (so)ci(e)ties

9When automobiles were new, they had to find their place on roads and streets. Accounts by motorists on how they experienced driving highlight various facets of the clash between motoring and society. In the early days car races, organised to test the durability and reliability of cars and their tyres, took place on the ordinary road, criss-crossing towns, villages and hamlets, and clashing violently with social functions of the road that combined awkwardly with the rush of the races. For participants the exhilaration of speed was one of the prime forms of adventure they sought when driving, along with the discovery of the unknown ('touring'), and the adventure of tinkering with the car (Mom, 2001). From a motorist perspective

"Sheep and hens are everywhere that they ought not to be, and there seems no way of escaping them. (...) Dogs are bad enough and ought to be exterminated. They are the silliest beasts which one finds uncontrolled on the roadways. Children, of course, one defers to, but they are outrageously careless and very foolish at times, and in short are the greatest responsibility for the driver in the small towns of England and France." (Miltoun, 1907 : 15).

10It is clear that Francis Miltoun, the author of this quote and an early motorised tourist, did not consider that inhabitants of the places he drove through might view motorists as an unwarranted intrusion into their daily life (Jackson, 2009 : 239). Miltoun's scorn also hints at a wider rural-urban divide existing with regard to automobilism (Mom, 2001). The presence of increasing numbers of automobiles on roads and streets importantly affected other users of the road, despite them being non-users of the technology as such (Schmucki, 2009). Early automobilism hence gave occasion to various forms of protest (Fraunholz, 2002). The most drastic measure in response to such anti-automobile sentiments was simply to forbid motorised four-wheelers on the road, as happened in the Swiss canton Graubünden from 1900 until 1925 (Merki, 2002 : 141-196).

11Yet eventually the function of roads and streets was redefined as thoroughfares for motorised vehicles. The confrontation of the automobile and society was particularly fierce in urban environments and has been the object of various well-written monographs (Davison, 2004 ; Flonneau, 2005 ; McShane, 1994). In cities the idea of the street as a 'machine for traffic' could build upon older processes, like the birth of modern traffic on the Haussmannian boulevards in Paris or the introduction of urban railways in the United States (Berman, 1988 ; McShane, 1994 : 29). It has over time led to several powerful critiques of the devastating effects of cars on cities, including Lewis Mumford's well-known litany (Mumford, 1964).

12One way to address conflicts between car and city was to disentangle local traffic both from through-flows that were merely passing by and from the infrastructures supporting other modes of transport. Roads serving long-distance inter-city traffic should avoid cities, for example by the provision of circular roads, while in cities under- or overpasses could ease traffic flows (Desportes, 1992). Motorways as roads for the exclusive use of motorised vehicles formed perhaps the boldest response to the challenges posed by the automobile. The introduction of motorways formed a major turning point in the history of mobility (Mom, 2005). To separate motorised vehicles from other traffic flows and allow heavy traffic densities, level crossings were eliminated and access points were limited in number. They did not grant the inhabitants of adjacent properties direct access to the motorway, for example.

13Traffic signs presented a different answer to the risks the automobile posed to city dwellers and drivers alike. They could warn against dangers, recommend specific actions, or forbid certain behaviour and thus formed part of a broader constellation of traffic rules and regulations. They could provide travellers with information on interesting sites to visit as well, or direct them to other towns and cities and indicate the length of the distance to be covered to reach them. Such themes became the object of negotiations among dedicated international organisations representing the interests of motorists around the turn of the century. In 1900 Paris hosted the first Congrès International d'Automobilisme, coinciding with the World Exhibition (Flonneau, 2005 : 32-33). In the wake of the event it became seat of the Association Internationale des Automobile-Clubs Reconnus (AIACR, 1904), and the Permanent International Association of Road Congresses (PIARC, 1908). They found an ally in the Ligue Internationale des Associations Touristes (LIAT, 1898), from Brussels. The LIAT had grown out of the bike movement from the late 19th century, but its focus on touring gradually transformed into an interest in touring-by-car in the course of the Interwar years.

14Producing signs and putting up along the road became one of the tasks such associations, or a company like the tyre manufacturer Michelin, assumed. Typically clubs put their names on the signs they sponsored, providing them with a way to advertise themselves. Along with signs drawing attention to dangers, most indicated directions or places of interest. During 1911-1914 Michelin put 30.000 signs on French roads, on top of the 23.000 the Touring-Club de France had already provided by 1908. By 1925 the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobilclub had installed a total of 36.000 signs on German roads. Specific danger signs were somewhat scarcer, but the Kaiserliche Automobil-Club had nevertheless put 1.383 along German roads by 1913 (Bertho Lavenir, 1999 : 167-168 ; Harp, 2001 : 82-83 ; Merki, 1998 : 342-343 ; Merki, 2002 : 337).

15The automobile and touring clubs took up the international standardisation in the international forums they had created. In 1900 the touring clubs decided on three standardised road danger signs, adding a fourth in 1902. They warned against uneven roads, sharp turns, level crossings and dangerous crossroads. The signs served as input for the first international conference dedicated to motorised traffic that involved government representatives in Paris in 1909. Participants embedded the danger signs in a broader discussion including direction and distance signs (PIARC, 1909). The Convention on Motor Traffic resulting from the conference reconfirmed the four road signs in its Annex D (RC, 1924 : 15-22), substantially reducing the twenty-four signs that had been in use (LoN, 1931a : 86).

16The outcome disregarded the changed opinion of the touring clubs. At their 1908 conference in Stockholm they had proclaimed that a single sign for all dangerous traffic situations was preferable, a position they had also defended earlier. The AIACR and the Touring Club Italiano successfully opposed this preference (Mom, 2007 : 2, 5-6), in line with the automobile clubs' position that the sign should give a hint of the danger ahead, as the reaction of the motorist often depended on the type of danger. They had come up with what they deemed an encompassing set of fifteen signs (PIARC, 1909). President of the Touring-Club de France Albert Ballif observed that the truth lay in the middle ("in medio veritas"). He called upon all to sacrifice personal preferences on the altar of international travel (PIARC, 1909 : 289). The swift return to the single-sign position indicates the extent to which the system was still in flux.

17In any case choosing uniform signs, or at least not choosing radically different ones from those used elsewhere had a simple rationale. Even though numbers were still limited, motorists travelled abroad. If they would encounter radically different signs up to the point of being unintelligible to them, this could negatively affect road safety. Thus we see the groundwork for the later standardisation of road traffic signs emerge in the period prior to the First World War. When the discussion continued after the war, it moved to a different institutional setting that had emerged in the wake of the war.

The League of Nations takes up road traffic

18After the First World War international cooperation changed drastically with the creation of the League of Nations. The brainchild of American president Woodrow Wilson came into being after long months of negotiations in Paris. The League provided an institutional setting for international negotiations on a whole range of practical issues, its creators being convinced that new technological developments were increasingly making national borders obsolete and that an organisation at a new, more encompassing level should be in charge of steering these developments (Schipper et al., forthcoming). The work included the previous efforts to provide road sign harmony among nations.

19A second general feeling underpinning the Geneva organisation has, however, tainted its public image. The urge to abolish war and create a guardian angel for peace in Europe combined with the eventual failure to secure the peace have led historians to agree that the institution had failed overall and was therefore unworthy of serious historical scrutiny. "Only a handful of eccentric historians still bother to study" the League (MacMillan, 2001 : 92). It has lead to a dearth of academic studies carefully investigating what actually happened in Geneva (Fleury, 1998 : 517 ; Clavin and Wessels, 2005 : 468). René Girault captured the general mood among historians as

"What good does it do to analyse an institution that in practical terms failed to find a solution to the disputes existing at the time ? The black legend of the League of Nations was born ; one would soon forget Geneva and its sterile debates." (quoted in Fleury, 1998 : 518)

20The black legend actually first emerged in the League's lifetime. Yet most dismissals of the League as inconsequential base themselves on themes pertaining to 'high politics', such as foreign policy. This is in line with the League's main aim to secure international peace and stability. Yet outcomes might have been different for 'low politics', for which historians have only scratched the surface of the available archives. League-speak called these subjects 'technical', conform a widely held belief in a broad distinction between the 'technical' and the 'political' (Potter, 1935 ; Schot and Lagendijk, 2008). Technical topics constituted the bulk of the League's work. It created specialised technical committees for various subjects, supported by specific sections within the Secretariat, its administrative service. Recent research has highlighted the importance of the League in economic and financial matters, and claimed that the Secretariat and its various sections wielded more power than could be expected from a purely administrative bureaucracy (Clavin and Wessels, 2005). Here, as on other 'technical' subjects, the League acted as facilitator for international cooperation and "emerges rather as a harbinger of global governance" (Pedersen, 2007).

21This seems a fortiori true for its infrastructure-related work (Schipper et al., forthcoming ; Anastasiadou, forthcoming ; Laborie, 2007 ; Lagendijk, 2008 ; Schipper, 2008), for which contemporary secondary materials continue to be the main source. Greaves has provided a useful overview of all technical committees, but the breadth of his book makes his discussion of individual committees rather succinct (Greaves, 1931). Le Marec produced a dissertation on the League's Communications and Transit Organisation (Le Marec, 1938), on which the holdings of the Palais des Nations contain a typewritten manuscript by Jan Hostie (Hostie, 1945). The Belgian legal expert and former secretary-general of the Central Commission for Rhine Navigation had been a member of the Legal Committee of the Advisory and Technical Committee for Communications and Transit (CCT) from 1924. All three show the wide range of subjects covered by CCT, in which the League concentrated its work on 'transport and communications'. In League terminology 'communications' not only referred to telecommunications but also to transport and electricity. 'Transit' referred to the passage of flows through states not being their origin or destination.

22The CCT had grown out of the First General Conference on Communications and Transit, one of the first conferences organised under auspices of the League, as transport problems were an important issue under post-war conditions. Between 10 March and 20 April 1921 it drew representatives from forty-four states to Barcelona. The Barcelona conference established the rules for the general conferences and mandated the CCT to prepare them. In its turn, the CCT established an internal organisational framework for tackling a broad range of issues, ranging from standards for maritime buoys to negotiating rules for the exchange of electric power. Apart from more general committees keeping oversight of the budget and legal matters, the CCT instituted specialised committees for transport by rail ; inland navigation ; ports and maritime navigation ; and electric questions.

23Although the later Committee on Road Traffic1 did not figure among the original committees, the topic soon appeared on the agenda. The CCT started discussing driving licenses in March 1922, an issue intimately related to road safety. On behalf of the International Transport Workers' Federation Deputy Director Butler of the International Labour Organisation requested the League to consider introducing an international driving license for chauffeurs (CCT, 1922 : 45 ; CCT, 1923). The CCT broadened the request to a recommendation to organise a conference for an entire revision of the 1909 Convention on Motor Traffic. It appointed a Committee of Enquiry for Road Traffic to draft the revision, including the parts on road traffic signs. Dr. Armand Stiévenard, inspector of the Belgian Railways, became its chair. F. Amunátegui and Edmond Chaix joined him as members representing Chile, and the Automobile-Club de France and AIACR respectively.

24O. Bilfeldt (Denmark), Ernest Delaquis (Switzerland), P.C. Franklin (UK), Enrico Mellini (Italy), F. Pflug (Germany) and J.F. Schönfeld (Netherlands) filled the remaining vacancies. Secretariat official Johan Romein, a Dutch civil engineer, served as the Committee's secretary (CCT, 1924a : 5-6 ; CCT, 1924b : 3). Most initial members and their successors had an engineering background in (civil) engineering, or were otherwise well-acquainted with the transport sector. They worked in ministries of transport and public works. Some, like Franklin, or the later Swedish member Axel Valsinger, worked for road departments. A minority (Amunátegui, Bilfeldt, Delaquis) served in the judicial branch or police departments.

25The Committee members set out to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the 1909 sign system and the alternative of using a single sign for all dangerous traffic situations that was by then used across Scandinavia. The Swedish government had informed other signatories of the 1909 Convention of its intention to establish a red-edged triangle as a unique danger sign (Figure 1). Bilfeldt declared that the automobile clubs of Denmark, Finland and Norway had also embraced the triangle as a unique sign. Mellini coldly received the proposal, remarking it had taken Italy ten years to introduce the 1909 signs. Any change implied considerable costs for replacement and take a similarly long time to implement.

26The Committee decided to retain the four original signs, adding a fifth featuring a locomotive to indicate unguarded level crossings, which were increasing in number due to the abolition of gates across Europe (RC, 1924 : 12). The 1909 Convention had already opened the door to later modification of or additions to the signs in use. Article 8 stipulated, "Governments of the Contracting States may agree in common to modify this system of notices". As advantageous additions to the four-sign system it suggested a sign for indicating a customs house and one ordering a halt.

27In contrast to the Scandinavian representatives, professional chauffeurs seemed satisfied with the existing signs. The representative of the International Federation of Professional Motor-car Drivers A. Förstner indicated the 1924 International Drivers Conference had proclaimed the signs adopted in the 1909 Convention to be excellent and favoured the generalisation of their use. To accommodate the different opinions Pflug proposed to add the Scandinavian triangle to the list of international signs, to be used for dangers not covered by the other signs. It was understood that the states were neither obliged to introduce all signs, nor precluded from introducing additional ones if they deemed them necessary. The Road Committee simply required that signs with the same meaning as the standard signs would not use alternative symbols to convey their message. On behalf of the Nordic countries Bilfeldt wholeheartedly supported the proposal and the amendment was adopted (RC, 1925 : 8).

28Undeterred by this outcome, the Scandinavian members proposed the use of the red-edged triangle as a unique danger sign again at a meeting of the Conseil Central de Tourisme International in October 1925, founded that year as a cooperative body between the automobile and touring clubs (Alliance International de Tourisme, 1998 : 28). They demonstratively walked out when the representatives of other clubs refused to accept the proposal (RC, 1926 : 4, 21-22). Eventually traffic signs were discussed at a conference in Paris in 1926 on the revision of the 1909 Convention. The adopted convention was split in two separate documents, one concerning all administrative regulations, the other concerning the rules of the road including road danger signs, which increased from four to six (N.a., 1926a ; N.a., 1926b).

29Although the League in the end was unable to have its draft as the sole input for the conference for reasons beyond the scope of this article (see Schipper, 2008 : 136-140), the Genevan paragon of international cooperation had unequivocally taken up road traffic as a subject worthy of its attention. In the process the Road Committee, originally envisioned as temporary to investigate the revision of the 1909 Convention, became a permanent body resorting under the CCT. In the next quinquennial period the League seized international road sign standardisation as part of a broader ambition to become the core site for debating all international aspects of road traffic (Schipper, 2008 : 121-157), but with a distinctly European flavour.

The Rise of Urban Concerns in the League's Work on Road Traffic

30No sooner had the ink dried on the Conventions of Paris than the Committee continued to identify traffic signs as the most urgent matter on its agenda (RC, 1927a : 3). The Committee now introduced an explicit urban dimension by inserting a distinction between urban and non-urban signs in its work. A sign of the rising importance of the urban was the presence of Dr. De Schulthess on behalf of the International Union of Towns (IUT) at the Committee's fifth session. De Schulthess admitted that the IUT had long ignored the existence of a Road Committee, and had cooperated exclusively with the AIACR and PIARC. A committee representing local Swiss authorities as well as automobile, biking and touring interest associations had just drawn up a set of urban road traffic signs across Switzerland to be presented to an IUT meeting in July (RC, 1927b : 1)2. The collection included signs prohibiting passage, indicating one-way traffic or a compulsory direction, or authorising the parking of vehicles. The Road Committee carefully considered the outcome, which had in its turn been inspired by earlier deliberations taking place within the Road Committee itself3.

31The presence of the IUT and the more prominent participation of the automobile clubs and touring associations was in itself a sign of the growing stature of the Road Committee as the central place for international negotiations concerning road traffic. This was not only apparent for road traffic signs, but also for themes relating to commercial road traffic, or tax exemptions for vehicles temporarily travelling abroad on holiday. The activities of the non-governmental associations, which had commenced around 1900, and the newer intergovernmental forum of the League started to blend.

32In making decisions with regard to urban traffic signs, the Road Committee had to strike the right balance between two positions. On the one hand it deemed it absolutely necessary to adapt traffic regulations to local circumstances – as probably done best by local authorities. Here it faced the complication that local authorities had different positions in the state hierarchy of the League's member states. It made complete unification of urban traffic signs difficult to achieve. In a state like Belgium urban traffic regulations were completely left to local authorities to decide ; central authorities had no legal ground to interfere with this local competence (RC, 1927a : 6 ; 1927b : 3 ; 1928b : 8).

33On the other hand, local caprice should not create too much confusion for road users either. The Committee felt the need to ensure foreign travellers would readily understand signs when abroad. This consideration pointed in the direction of the unification of signs that allowed easy and fast interpretation (Badel, 1929 ; Le Marec, 1938 : 216 ; LoN, 1931a : 122). Tourist considerations were mainly important where cross-border tourist traffic had risen to substantial levels. This gave the debate a distinctly European character. As a continent with sizeable automobile ownership and a high density of national borders, European states could hardly decide on signs in splendid isolation. The manifold flows tying European countries together, even at low densities, raised problems resulting from diverging road traffic regulations (Merki, 1998). An island state like New Zealand could indifferently point out that it did not perceive "any object or benefit in changing the present signs" in accordance with those arrived at in the framework of the League of Nations. India too pointed out that its road system was self-contained in its current stage of development and therefore disadvantages resulting from non-unification "would be less marked in the case of India than in the case of Europe" (RC, 1928b : 13, 19).

34Finding a middle road between the ideals of universality and local flexibility was by no means easy. A simultaneous discussion on speed limits illustrates the balancing act involved. Several conflicts relating to the automobile take-over of roads coalesced around speed limits (Bertho Lavenir, 2000 : 123). All member states of the League of Nations had set them lower within built-up areas than outside of them (RC, 1928a). The impact of speeds on accidents formed a matter of more general public concern, finding its way into public awareness campaigns (Figure 2). In the United States the public outcry against the general dangers intrinsic to the speed of automobiles as such transformed into an automobile interest-led push to condemn recklessness instead (Norton, 2009). A new configuration started to emerge on the links between automobile speed, accidents and responsibility, which settled in the course of the 1930s.

Figure 2 : American poster warning against speeding, 1936

Figure 2 : American poster warning against speeding, 1936

Source : (N.a., 1936).

35In an emotional letter on behalf of the Gesellschaft zum Schutze der Bevölkerung gegen die Ausschreitungen des Automobilismus (translated in the minutes as Society for the Protection of the Public against Dangerous Driving) and his own Vienna-based Verein zur Förderung der Verkehrssicherheit (Association for the Promotion of Traffic Safety), Dr. S. Stimmer proclaimed a lower maximum speed as the most urgent measure for unifying European traffic rules. In his view the absence of a general limit to reckless speeds was the disturbing cause for the horrifying regularity of severe accidents. Smelling trouble, Committee member Crespi wrote to Committee secretary Romein that in the view of the automobile-clubs such measures limited human progress. Crespi squarely denied automobile traffic caused more death on the road than non-motorised traffic, while improved braking systems had already further diminished the need for speed limits4.

36In weighing the opposite positions, the Committee unanimously expressed the conviction that local authorities should always remain completely free to adopt the speed limits they deemed appropriate given local circumstances. With regard to a general European speed limit some believed introducing an absolute speed limit in addition to local restrictions would be a good thing at the national, not the European level, while others objected that speed was but one of several factors contributing to the occurrence of accidents. In a broader sense, the difficulty of reaching agreement on speed limits is representative of the difficulty of harmonising road traffic rules. This had earlier become apparent at the 1926 conference in Paris. In contrast, and more important here, the Committee had no difficulty agreeing on the signs indicating a speed limit where it occurred (RC, 1927b : 10-11). In the process, the proposed signs changed shape from rectangular to round, a shape that was confirmed at the 1931 conference in Geneva (LoN, 1931a : 88) (Figure 3).

37Harmonising shapes and colours was a way to address the concern that introducing too many signs would distract the attention of drivers and create new dangers (RC, 1927b : 3-4). It formed an alternative to putting a cap on the number of symbols that could be used in road signs. By now there was broad support for a substantial increase in the number of standardised international signs, enhancing the importance of developing a typology of signs. Colours varied between dark signs on a light background and light signs on a dark background (Table 1). With regard to shapes, the triangle indicated dangerous traffic situations, conform the stipulations of the 1926 Convention on Motor Traffic. For speed limits the Committee initially recommended the use of rectangular plates (see above). All other signs should consist of a circle of sixty cm in diameter (RC, 1927a : 3-5).

Table 1 : Road Sign Colours, Selected European States, 1927




France, Italy

white on a dark blue background

visibility, durability


black on a white background with red edges

most conspicuous


black on a white background

 – (none given)

Source : (RC, 1927a : 4).

38When the essentially European discussions on the standardisation of traffic signs reached their apotheosis in 1931 at the European Conference on Road Transport, the resulting convention indeed divided signs in three categories with an exclusive shape. Triangular signs indicated dangerous situations, obligation signs were circular, and rectangular signs gave indications. In terms of colour use, the convention stipulated the colour red should predominate in prohibition signs. The AIACR had had an important role in drafting the convention presented at the conference. The final version the Conference adopted hardly differed from what the AIACR had proposed5. Signs did not become uniform all across Europe, but a short glance at the many available alternatives shows to what extent the conference managed to curtail utter chaos in traffic signs (LoN, 1931b : 9).

39Traffic signs formed a main topic at the Genevan headquarters of the League of Nations, which served as the venue for the conference. The conference entrusted the theme to a committee chaired by the respected Stiévenard. The challenging task ahead was to bridge the diverging opinions that remained. After the 1926 Conference in Paris the Committee had gone at great pains to lay the basis for a consensus. Now the moment of truth had arrived. Stiévenard stated that though most state representatives had the natural tendency to considered their own system optimal, now was the time to question such a position and make concessions (LoN, 1931a : 84).

40The discussion of the committee went smoothly in both absolute and relative terms. The rapporteurs on the session interspersed their account of the work of the committee, with notions of cordiality and goodwill (LoN, 1931a : 122-124). The final report explicitly declared the fruits of its work applied both to the main road and urban traffic (LoN, 1931a : 123), where the 1909 Convention had still claimed that there was as a general rule no need for traffic signs in towns or villages. The conviction was in fact repeated at the conference itself, as motorists would supposedly drive carefully in crowded areas in any case (LoN, 1931a : 87).

41The deliberations at the conference left the drafts in which the Committee's work of many years had materialised rather unscathed. This formed a sharp contrast to the discussion on commercial road transport, arguably the most important theme on the conference agenda, but one the conference decided to abandon completely. Ultimately though, the individual states retained a considerable degree of manoeuvring space with regard to traffic signs. The situation ran counter to the position of the IUT as articulated by De Schulthess, who proclaimed his union ready to make the Road Committee the supreme arbiter in road signalling and related regulations (LoN, 1931a : 106, 108).

42It seemed in line with the Committee’s own opinion formulated just prior to the landmark conference. To prevent festering local traffic solutions it had concluded that international agreement seemed the single method to prevent it. It had also urged swift action, as further delay would increase the difficulties of removing existing divergences (CCT, 1930 : 25, 58). Committee members were cautious though, as past negotiations had made them well aware that centralising authority was unpopular. The conference merely recommended that no new signs should be introduced without prior consultation of the League’s Road Committee (LoN, 1931a : 124). While De Schultess and the IUT were wary of seeing local variations in traffic signs being replaced with national variations, the Road Committee preferred soft harmonisation methods over imposing a view from above. Still, in doing so, it managed to put clear limits to the unbridled proliferation of traffic signs.

43Attempts to standardise road signs at an international level during the Interwar years had reached their climax in the 1931 conference. The system remained essentially the same thereafter. Subsequent changes were made, but they did not amount to a fundamental restructuring (Sager, 1952). The Committee sought to secure its legacy by tracking adherence to the 1931 conventions and striving for further accessions. On top of the Convention on Road Signs, the 1931 conference had adopted a Convention on the Taxation of Foreign Motor Vehicles and an Agreement concerning Lost or Undischarged Triptyques. At the conference the instruments were signed by nine, ten, and eleven states respectively. By 1937 these numbers had increased to fourteen, nineteen and twenty-three (RC, 1937 : 44-47). The rate of ratification and accession was thus lowest for road signs, but several states that had not formally adopted the Convention on Road Signs did stick to its signs. By the late 1930s this was the case for Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany and Yugoslavia (Figure 4). In short, the conference had firmly fortified the existing framework for the discussion and adoption of internationally agreed signs.

Figure 4 : Application of 1931 Traffic Signs, 1938

Figure 4 : Application of 1931 Traffic Signs, 1938

Source : (LoN, 1938 : 240).

44Urban themes continued their presence in the Committee's sessions after 1931. The urban/non-urban divide steadily grew more pronounced. The Committee started worrying about the safety of pedestrians (RC, 1930 : 6-7 ; RC, 1933 : 33-37 ; RC, 1938 : 23-34). The lion's share of the debate concerned how to protect pedestrians in traffic, with an additional concern on how to educate them to become well-behaved participants in urban traffic remaining on the sidewalks or at least at the margins of road, not bothering motorised vehicles as they passed (Norton, 2007). Disciplining traffic in urban settings grew in importance more generally. A new sign prohibiting the use of horns linked in with a broader societal sentiment against unnecessary noise (CCT, 1935 : Annex 7 ; RC, 1935a : 10-11). The debate on noise abatement focused on traffic noise. The use of the automobile horn for situations other than to prevent accidents, became the epitome of uncivilised behaviour and a preferred object of criticism in the anti-noise movement (Bijsterveld, 2008 : 117-124).

45Finally, the Road Committee agreed on what could perhaps be characterised as the ultimate urban traffic sign. The urban/non-urban divide materialised in a standardised sign fencing off the urban realm from its surroundings. The Belgian government had earlier called for the standardisation of such a sign (RC, 1928b : 8). Its conspicuous white letters on a blue rectangular background not only indicated the name of the town, but also marked the limit of rules applying within urban limits and those valid outside it (RC, 1935a : 7 ; 1935b :  7). Earlier the sign also embodied the limit of the international standardisation of road signs, as the Road Committee’s had mainly dealt with those on the main road outside the urban space. By the mid-1930s the Committee was in charge of both, a fact accepted by the international representatives of municipal authorities and automobile and touring clubs alike. The League had indeed emerged as a harbinger of European governance for the international fine-tuning of road traffic signs.


46The 1950s were a period of mass motorisation in many European countries. During the decade the annual tourist migration by means of the family-owned car became the embodiment of what it meant to be a modern, wealthy 20th century European. (Judt, 2005 : 339-343). The large flocks of wandering tourists created precisely the kind of situation the Road Committee members had had in mind while doing their work. The 'extensive internationalisation of road signs' constituted a handy material help aiding the motorised tourists abroad on their travels (Didier, 1956). Didier's view contrasts sharply with the 'Tower of Babel' characterisation by Baudry de Saunier twenty-five years earlier, cited in the introduction. Apparently some great strides had been made in the meantime.

47The picture that emerges from the discussion in this article is that the League tackled traffic sign standardisation quite effectively. It did so for traffic signs in general, but also for those restricted to the urban realm. Some urban voices were present in discussing the use of traffic signs in cities and towns. Nevertheless, by and large the interests of local authorities were mainly excluded from discussions in the League on urban traffic (Bernardin and Gardon, 2006) and the IUT certainly did not enjoy the access given to automobile and touring clubs to the policy-making process.

48In its work the League successfully prevented an uncontrolled proliferation of signs incomprehensible to outsiders. In its role as a facilitator of international understanding and a cooperative forum furthering the joint solution of problems facing many nations at the same time, it had managed to put in place a set of traffic signs that eventually grew into something resembling a global standard. Conferences in 1949 and 1968 under auspices of the United Nations added new signs to the pile, but did not fundamentally change the system that had been put in place. The shapes and colours, not to mention the preference of symbols over text are still key characteristics of a large majority of traffic signs across the globe today. Several factors are important in interpreting this outcome.

49The first factor is restriction in a geographical sense. The harmonisation of traffic signs, though relevant to all states in which motorisation developed, took place in near-exclusive fashion among the European members of the League In the words of the Dutch transport expert Vonk, "Europe [had] constantly taken the initiative to negotiate international traffic law. Due to its small size and intensive traffic, the need for a minimum agreement enabling the development of motorized traffic was largest in Europe." (Vonk, 1950 : 181) The latter observation hit the nail on the head. The ‘symbolic’ tradition became the quintessence of European traffic signs, as opposed to the American text-based system. In the multilingual European context, there was no language that could be singled out. Instead, a new symbolic language was devised for the special use in traffic signs (LoN, 1935 : 145 ; Sager, 1952 : 264). McShane even interprets the 1971 decision in the United States to start using more symbolic signs as a move intended to stimulate European tourism (McShane, 1999 : note 31).

50A second factor to be taken into account is the flexible mix of 'soft standards' and lenience towards (slight) national variations. Through this method the League was nevertheless able to bring about a considerable degree of uniformity in road traffic signs. It hints at mechanisms that are important in building consensus among sovereign nation-states. In a situation in which there is no supranational arbiter able to enforce agreements on states, the League had to manoeuvre carefully on potentially contentious topics, and traffic signs were no exception. The flexibility and pragmatism characterizing the League's work show how acutely aware it was of the limitations to its work if it did not respect the sovereignty of its members. Yet such awareness did not imply that the fruits of its work were ineffective : the story on road traffic signs provides an example of how a strong consensus can emerge in non-coercive, intergovernmental settings. In addition, traffic signs presented a way to softly harmonise road traffic rules, which proved much more difficult to align. After all, traffic rules could remain different while the same signs were being used to communicate them.

51Last but not least, in drawing attention to the largely forgotten work of the League of Nations on 'technical' subjects, the road traffic sign story signals it may be about time for historians to take a closer look at the non-political work done on the shores of Lake Geneva than they have done hitherto, as it importantly impacts the assessment of the League's image overall. Studying the League through the lens of traffic signs puts a real contribution of the poorly understood Genevan organisation into the limelight. Yet traffic signs were but one theme on which the League's technical committees did valuable work. Recent scholarly investigations have revealed similar storylines for several policy terrains, from the protection of minorities to health issues. The rehabilitation of the League contributes to a better understanding of international cooperation in the Interwar years and historicising larger political processes of globalisation and European integration through long-term historical perspectives on circulations and infrastructures (Misa and Schot, 2005 ; Saunier, 2004). This contribution hopes to have demonstrated that the investigation of traffic signs is in fact an excellent means to this end.

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1 The committees were initially called sub-committees, but were renamed permanent committees in the mid-1920s. This text uses simply Road Committee, or Committee in short, in all cases.
2 De Schulthess to League of Nations, 27 April 1927, box R1132, League of Nations Archives (LoN).
3 De Zuylen de Nyevelt to Haas, 15 December 1927; Haas to de Zuylen de Nyevelt, 12 January 1928, box R1130, LoN.
4 Stimmer to Road Committee, 27 April 1927; Crespi to Romein, 29 September 1927, box R1132, LoN.
5 Letter by Perón, 4 February 1931, box R2584, LoN.
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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 : The 'Scandinavian' Red Triangle
Légende Source : (Kungliga Automobil Klubben, n.d.) (left) ; (Vandone, 1921 : 45) (right) : The signs on the left displays three variants of the 'Scandinavian' unique red triangle, indicating a 20 km speed limit, a 4,5 ton weight limit and a town name. The sign displayed the emblem of the Swedish Royal Automobile Club in the top of the triangle. The British sign on the right shows the international sign for a (dangerous) crossroads being attached to the pole underneath a general danger triangle.
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
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Titre Figure 2 : American poster warning against speeding, 1936
Légende Source : (N.a., 1936).
Fichier image/jpeg, 184k
Titre Figure 3 : Road Sign Prohibiting Speeds over 30 Km
Légende Source : (LoN, 1930 : 11) (left) ; (LoN, 1931a : in between 114 and 115) (right).
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
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Titre Figure 4 : Application of 1931 Traffic Signs, 1938
Légende Source : (LoN, 1938 : 240).
Fichier image/jpeg, 202k
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Frank Schipper, « Unravelling hieroglyphs : Urban traffic signs and the League of Nations »Métropoles [En ligne], 6 | 2009, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2009, consulté le 02 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Frank Schipper

Doctor in history, Technical University of Eindhoven, F[point]Schipper(at)tue[point]nl

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