What’s New in our Making A Museum Exhibit? Walk/Dont Walk Pedestrian Signal

The humble pedestrian signal: a street design standard of such obvious utility (albeit habitually ignored by New Yorkers) that it seems to have existed forever. But our streets have not always been ruled by incandescent dictates. In the early 20th century, pedestrians freely used street space to cross and walk in. As automobile usage became more common, so did pedestrian deaths. In an effort to improve safety and reduce gridlock, the first permanent traffic lights in New York, on 5th Avenue between 14th and 57th Streets, were installed in 1920. Separate pedestrian signals were first introduced at a few intersections in the late 1930s.

The yellow box “walk/dont walk” signal we have on view was installed throughout the city in the 1950s. Note the lack of an apostrophe in “dont”: possibly because the first such signs were neon, with “dont” made out of a single glass tube that made it difficult to include. The idiosyncratic punctuation helped to make the signal a beloved part of NYC’s visual fabric. “The apostrophe missing from DONT WALK” was one of the 101 reasons to love New York City cited by the Times in 1976 (please read the entire incredible list), and a Times writer later effused “[i]t is to Martin Scorsese’s midcentury Manhattan what the gas lamp is to Edith Wharton’s gilded age.” The sign was the titular component of Pratt alum George Segal’s sculpture revealing “passionate honesty and existential weight.” And the sign’s instructions were sometimes the first words young New Yorkers learned to read.

Following federal specifications, walk/dont walk signals were exchanged for pictograms, commonly referred to as the man and the hand, beginning in 1999 (though some escaped replacement until 2006!). Initially derided as another way New York was coming to look more like every other U.S. city, our ever inventive citizenry have made the man and hand our own. Unlike other cities worldwide, our alterations have so far been unofficial – another example of New Yorkers always going their own way.

Many thanks to Reliquary friend Steven Gerraro, who donated a pedestrian signal to the Museum in 2017!

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