Posted by: Brad Nixon | March 15, 2010

An Unmarked World has been featuring an interesting series of articles about signs: traffic signs and directional signs. I recommend the series. Access the articles from Slate HERE.

Not enough to tempt you to dig deeper? OK. Let’s take this tack. One thing that fascinates me is the unending string of coincidences that make up our lives. As soon as the Slate articles had me thinking about the history of, current state of and future prospects for signage in cities and on highways, then faithful reader and commenter Pergande sent me a link to an astounding piece of motion film footage.

I want to encourage you in the strongest possible way to click on the link below and view the film. It IS film, not video. It is from the very dawn of motion film: 1906.That is only a dozen years or so after the introduction of the first practical motion film. Some enterprising soul set a hand-cranked camera in the front of a San Francisco cable car running down Powell Street in 1906, and simply recorded the scene. You might do this today on your vacation. What our cameraman captured is a glimpse into a world that is lost to us. And, if you’re still not willing to view this clip, then I’ll give you the clincher: it was recorded 4 days before the earthquake that destroyed San Francisco.

HERE is the link. I’ll wait while you watch. It just takes a couple of minutes.

It’s a few minutes of real-time imagery of driving down a city street. To us, the concept of recording something like that is nothing remarkable (although, when we travel, we probably should think about doing more things like this to show what the “ordinary world” looks like, versus the “formal world” of tourism.)

As ordinary as is the idea of recording such footage is today, I will guess that you have never had such a sustained look at the world of 100 years ago in any footage. It’s absolutely fabulous. There are horses and horse-drawn vehicles sharing the road with people on foot, with automobiles and with pedestrians. The vehicles are HUGE, and one can only conclude that it was utter chaos out there in 1906. What separates that world from ours more than anything else is that there were NO traffic lights, NO stop signs, NO directional signals and NO crosswalks. The brand-new automobiles were clearly in the ascendant, darting between wagons and streetcars, and daring pedestrians to try to make it across the street. There are a thousand details on which we could dwell. Maybe I’ll come back to this clip later for some other articles. Right now, I want to think about one thing: no signs.

I won’t belabor the point, but, just imagine: in cities all over the globe, for thousands of years, from ancient Nineveh to London and New York at the dawn of the 20th Century, the world proceeded on foot or on horseback. Until humans had the range of motion provided by engines, there were no traffic signs and, almost certainly, not even any street signs or addresses until the modern era. People lived “local” lives, and did not expect to range across vast miles of a city, with an address and map in hand.

Ancient Rome, a metropolis of perhaps a million people, had no street signs and no house numbers or addresses.

If you wanted to find your way around Rome or Athens or Alexandria or Jerusalem or any city or town in the world of two thousands years ago, you’d have to ask for directions. Think of what that would be like:

“Can you tell me the way to the house of Nixonius? He lives somewhere in the southern part of the city, near the Port, along the Western Avenue? Incrementally, bit by bit, narrowing down your search, you’d make your way through a city of a million people, narrowing down your search.

That was the ancient world. An utterly local, personal way of relating to the larger world. Take a moment, though, before we dismiss ancient Rome as a place of chaotic, unconnected neighborhoods full of ignorant laborers. Remember that this was a city whose citizens voted in elections, could own property, and, among other amenities, had access to public baths which, even more significantly, were fed by the municipal water supply. This water system, one of the great accomplishments of the ancient world, provided drinkable water to a million people, whether they lived stacked in 4-story brick apartment buildings or in palaces on the Palatine Hill. Some of the drinking fountains they used 2,000 years ago are still functioning today: you can drink from them as you wander the city. Seriously. Try to find a drinking fountain in New York or Chicago that you’d trust. Caesar Augustus gave Rome drinking fountains we’re still using.

So far, then, we have a series of articles about traffic signs on, some archival footage of a street scene recorded in San Francisco just before the 1906 earthquake, and we have my account of ancient cities being, in terms of traffic and streets signs, not all that much different from the San Francisco of 1906. Where is this going? I have a point, and I’ll get to the point tomorrow. Please bear with me. If you haven’t looked at that 1906 footage, do so. It’s a window into another world. That’s your assignment for tomorrow’s class. Dismissed.

© Brad Nixon 2012, 2017



  1. “Early Sunday Morning”

    Brad, a very interesting comparison of the Ancient and Modern Worlds. I’d never thought of that distinction before I read your article.

    Your review of 1906 San Francisco sparked my memory of another filmed event that would not otherwise have occurred to me to compare with the 1906 film. This one comparative event happened nearly 100 years later. And it happened to me (in a very small way, of course). Think: Edward Hopper’s 1930 painting “Early Sunday Morning.” Only, imagine it’s Paris, 1999, not New York, 1930, or San Francisco, 1906.

    On an early Sunday morning in May, 1999, after a 10+ hour flight from LA, my wife and I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport, north of Paris. At about 8:00 am, we boarded an Air France bus at the airport terminal to take us to Montparnasse train station, south central Paris.

    As the bus wound its way through Paris that morning, I took out my camcorder, put it next to the window, and just let the camcorder run, much like that early filmmaker of 1906 San Francisco.

    But unlike that busy, seemingly chaotic day in San Francisco, 1906, my Paris of 1999 was as calm and nearly as free of human activity as that Edward Hopper painting of New York. As it was an early Paris morning on a weekend, there were few cars in the streets or people on the sidewalks. And, just as in the Hopper painting, the low rising sun that Paris day was very bright, and sharply illuminated the facades of shops and cafes, while causing strong shadows to be cast across the cobblestone streets.

    Undoubtedly, countless tourists have taken out their camcorders on Paris buses to preserve their view of the incomparable City of Light. But my video was not “touristy.” My film was not punctuated by iconic monuments or Grands Boulevards. Just some streets here and there that few would recognize, virtually empty of human activity. Can you actually imagine Paris abandoned???

    This was my brief view that is opposite of how we usually think of Paris: lively, active, people moving about everywhere, taxis’ horns bleating, police cars’ sirens droning, church bells singing, bicycles zigzagging . . . or, people just strolling in the beautiful parks or gardens. None of that for me, though. Just one calm, early Sunday morning in Paris.


  2. Astounding. No signs, no traffic lights, everybody driving every which way…utter chaos. And yet, those rickety-ass cars already have license plates. I particularly liked the one that said Q8KCMNG.


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