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What Does California's State Highway Shield Symbolize?

California's state highway markers – those green, numbered signs placed along local freeways and rural routes across the Golden State -- are so familiar a feature of the automotive landscape that it's easy to overlook their symbolism. But the shield accomplishes a neat trick. At once it points ahead and back – forward toward some spatial destination, but also back toward a temporal point of origin.

The shield's original 1934 design featured the silhouette of a grizzly bear, present on the state flag but extinct in California since 1922. Photo by Herman Schultheis, courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
The shield's original 1934 design featured the silhouette of a grizzly bear, present on the state flag but extinct in California since 1922. Photo by Herman Schultheis, courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

Its shape mimics the spade carried by Forty-Niners into the foothills and sold by the opportunistic merchants who made the real fortunes of the California Gold Rush.

When state highway officials adopted the miner's spade as an emblem of their system in 1934, did they fancy themselves successors to the Forty-Niners? By pioneering auto travel through California's rugged terrain, they were, after all, following the figurative (and sometimes literal) path of those gold-fevered newcomers.

But if so, they chose to celebrate a complicated legacy. Tales of prospectors' grit or shopkeepers' cunning often ignore the profound environmental and social costs of the Gold Rush: forests felled and streams choked with silt; Indians displaced and enslaved; Chinese, African-American, and other nonwhite miners excluded from the diggings.

Its symbolism was even more perplexing from 1934-57. In those years, the silhouette of a grizzly bear – an animal the Forty-Niners and their descendants had hunted to extinction by 1922 – strode atop each route number.

A 1957 design refresh erased the bear. Another in 1964 made the spade green (for visibility reasons; blue-and-gold was a close runner-up) and softened its upper point, somewhat obscuring the historical reference.

Today, California's is the only non-rectangular state highway shield.

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The current design of California's state highway shield dates to 1964. In this photograph, taken from the cover of the Mar-Apr 1964 edition of California Highways and Public Works (published by the forerunner to Caltrans), two workers re-sign U.S. Route 101(Alternate) as California State Highway 1. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Story continues below

 

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From 1934 to 1947, the Automobile Club of Southern California and California State Automobile Association were responsible for signing California's state highway routes. This page from the August 1934 issue ofCalifornia Highways and Public Works, published by the forerunner to Caltrans, is courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

 

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Although other states once designed their highway shields in the shape of a historical symbol or their own state boundaries, California's is today the only non-rectangular state highway shield. This page from the October 1934 issue of California Highways and Public Works, published by the forerunner to Caltrans, is courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Further Reading

Sackman, Douglas Cazaux. "Nature and Conquest: After the Deluge of '49." In A Companion to California History, edited by William Deverell and David Igler, 175-191. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

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