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History Of The Subway Destination Roll Sign

For those of you unaware of the great innovative designs of our past the Roll Sign is certainly a piece of history that in recent years has actually become more attractive as pieces of art within the home, workplace and office space.

So let's get started and give you a little further information on the history of an iconic communication tool that has transformed into chic wall art. 

What Exactly Is A Roll Sign?

A roll sign itself is a flexible roll of printed material that was usually found across the top of public transport this included Trains, Buses, and Subway Carts. Normally the focus point of these was to indicate the destination or route the transportation would be taking, displayed on the front and occasionally the rear of the vehicle would make boarding easier and more manageable for traveling passengers.

Right up until the late 1900's the roll sign was the most common destination sign (other names included Curtain Sign, Tram Scroll, Bus Blind, or Destination Blind). Upon this flexible roll of material were pre-printed route numbers and letters and the destinations. This was left down to the operator to make sure the correct route was showing.


These signs would then have to be turned by the operator at the end of each route before heading off in the reversed direction. This would be done by either a hand crank or as technology advanced via a switch if the mechanism was in fact motorized. Roll signs were expected to be out of linen until a new PET film called Mylar was introduced and quickly became the common material in which they designed throughout the 1960's and 1970's.

What Did The 90's Do To The Roll Sign?

Heading into the early 90's roll signs would still be seen in the older public transport vehicles, occasionally they would also be implemented into newer vehicles of that time. However, during the 1980's they largely started to incorporate public transport with electronic signs. The digital display of the time was known to be somewhat less readable and efficient but made operators lives easier to be able to change between destinations or routes.

Saying all of this some of you may still remember seeing roll signs not that long ago and you would be correct, if the roll signs were well made and continued to work correctly transit operators would actually continue to use them. It has been known for roll signs to still be used right up until 2010.



How did the Roll Sign Work?

Let's start with how exactly it was built. The destination/route roll was attached to two metal tubes (the upper and the lower) then flanges are fitted on to the end of the tubes and inserted into a mechanism which controlled the rolling of the sign itself. The tubes are then sufficiently stretched apart from one another to permit a reading (destination/route) to be shown, then a strip light is fitted behind the roll to illuminate it during the evening and at night.

The ins and outs of how this roll sign functioned are actually incredibly interesting. Once the operator/conductor/driver turned the crank handle or held the motorized switch, this would then engage one of the rollers to gather up the roll/blind as it simultaneously disengages the other, this is until the required display is found. All roll signs were then fitted with small viewing windows placed in the back of the sign box. Having this then permits the operator to see an indication of what is actually being shown on the exterior of his vehicle.

Are Roll Signs Still Used Today?

Actually yes, Although they may not be as popular or common compared to modern day LED displays they are still out there. Nowadays they are more common to be seen as automatic roll signs or blind displays, as it has been possible since at least the 1970's they have been primarily used on rail systems.

Where roll signs may still be seen on metro trains or trams they can still contain several sign boxes. This has made it considerably easier for the operator to change the display, through easily controllable computer systems built into the driver's cabin. However, they are designed slightly differently, fitted with barcodes on the reverse of the roller the computer rolls the blind using a sensor which is read until the correct barcode has been reached.

London buses are actually a great example of transport that still uses roll signs in this day and age, although they are fitted with an up and down function and a backup crank, it has been a technology proven to still work and adds to the classic look of the London red bus.

The Downside To Our Modern Technology

Although everybody believes that technology should continue to advance there are all always going to be downsides or as I like to call them teething problems. What I am about to discuss I believe highlights these points.

Even though these modern day systems are usually highly accurate, over time they start to prove there less than helpful uses. Blinds or Rollers can become dirty and this effects both the sensors and the barcodes leaving the computers to become useless as they are unable to read the markings leading to mistakes and the wrong displays.

For the buses that still use these practices today can lead to many disadvantages as they rely heavily on the information displayed on their headboards (the name for a frontal display). As passengers rely on what the bus says compared to timetables or other displays.

Why Are We Trying To Bring The Black And White Print Back?

Black and white have always been those two distinct colors throughout history that brought you information. Through all forms of transport, company signs, newspapers, or even blackboards. If the world had something important to say it was in these two colors. One of the most commonly recognized adverts of this is New York Subway, where ever you are going these signs would tell you and now in modern day society we heavily rely upon this information to get from A to B. But is that their only use? Well up and tell recently you would think yes but actually these informative signs are seen as historical art and have actually been selling for a quite a few years now being used in private collections, home decoration, and even office environments.

That is why we are looking to get you ahead of the game. Although what we are offering is not authentic Subway or Destination Roll Signs they are just as exquisite and bring that history into your own home. Why not have something hanging that everybody will comment on and enjoy.

What We Feel About The New York Subway Signage

Being an idyllic symbol of New York for more than a hundred years, with a staggering 5.5 million average users on a daily basis these signs have been seen by an untold amount of eyes. Transporting both visitors and New Yorkers themselves alike through the maze-like runs that are the subway, the signage itself is known for its simplicity yet elegant look which brings that little bit of order to the chaos within the city.

It is not commonly known that the signs have not always been that way and back in the day caused more problems then they solved. When the subway first opened up it was initially by three competing companies the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit), the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) and the IND (Independent) lines all with their own signage systems and the only real way to tell where you were or where you were going was by the ceramic tiling embedded into the station walls.

How The Designs Changed Throughout The Years

These ceramic signs were designed by both George Heins and Christopher LaFarge, their aim was to provide beauty and simplicity within their signage. Which you can still see to this day if you visit the Astor Place subway station. It wasn't until 1906 when Squire Vickers became the chief designer overseeing the designs for all three subway companies, this leads him to create his own versions of the ceramic tiling. One of the many benefits of these ceramic made tiles was that Vickers idea was to place them on girder columns as well as the cast irons ones that it made it easier for passengers to be able to recognize their stop when arriving at a station.



However, he had no plans to actually make the tiles uniform. Unfortunately, this leads to further issues and confusions for passengers trying to get to their destinations. That is when the New York City Transit Authority decided it was time for a change, the three companies were merged together and taken control of by the government and things began to change for the better.

In 1967 the New York City Transit Authority brought in the Italian Designer Massimo Vignelli to design a uniformed simplistic navigation system for the subway. A well-known designer who has also designed the still well-known logos of American Airlines and Bloomingdales.

Vignelli himself introduced the still used modern day number and lettering system (including the font type) to quickly help make life a lot simpler for everyday commuters. All the old and problematic signs disappeared and this one simple design was delivered to the city. Lines were now easily identifiable with a simple single number or letter, and it is still the most recognizable signage within the New York City subway systems.

Who To Thank For The Correction Of The New York Subway

George Salomon is the man who single-handedly put the idea into the minds of the New York City Transit Authority with his proposal entitled "Out of the Labyrinth: A plea and a plan for improved passenger information in the New York Subways." This transcript actually contained many of the suggestions which nearly a decade later took place. He spoke all about the changes that needed to happen to the signage and even come up with his own solution regarding the numbering and lettering of the various subway transport lines.



George Salomon also suggested the color coding be used for trains, signage, and maps to make sure that uniformity was the main outcome for the subway system. Unfortunately, the only idea that the New York City Transit Authority took up was his suggestion of the color coded map which was heavily inspired by Henry Beck's map of the London Underground. But if George Salomon hadn't spoken up and listed his ideas there is no real understanding of where the subway could have ended up and which direction it would have taken.

Just Some Of My Thoughts

Either way, throughout the many years we have seen some incredible artistic designs and informative pieces of artwork from various genius creators. It is people like them that pave the way for creative minds regarding what they are able to achieve and the level at which they can reach, it is easy to see now how even a simple sign from 50 years ago can now be seen as artwork to be proud of and hang in your own home. Nowadays to get a version of what was previously seen as an informative sign can really bring that touch of elegance and history to someone that has possibly never even considered what was behind it and the work that is actually taken to provide it.

I hope for those of one that has read through this post that it has broadened your mind and provided you with an insight into what actually goes into the now considered art pieces and the impressive history behind some of the most famous creations in the transportation world.

So why not have a look through some of our fantastic pieces of subway destination roll signs aimed to bring back a little of that nostalgia, or even custom create a piece for your own home. We are here to help so feel free to get in touch with any inquiries and we will be happy to create you something that actually means something special to either yourself or a loved one.