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Video: Seeing Green

Yesteryear Travel: Seeing Green

Here's something we never stop to think about: standardized traffic lights. Nowadays these cross-street signals are nearly identical wherever we drive in America, even on the widest-ranging road trip. But as this short clip from a 1937 educational film makes clear, that wasn't always the case.

Some traffic signals were designed with two lights, some three. Some four. Some expected cars to stop on the yellow light, some expected cars to go. Some accessorized their lights with classic comedy semaphore flags and clanging bells. Some, according to the narrator, "look like little houses hanging from wires" (And then there's this old Buck Rogers stoplight, and this crazy Traffic Control Tower).

Luckily for the sanity and safety of American drivers, the traffic engineers of 1937 were already hard at work on stoplight standardization, although it apparently was a stop-and-go process to achieve ubiquitous compliance. "As soon as it is feasible," the announcer promises, "motorists will travel from border to border and coast to coast and meet the same old friend with the same clear message all the way" -- the familiar red-yellow-green traffic signals that we love (and hate) and take for granted today.

Except for the one light that's green on top.

Complete film at

Old Films: Fascinating!

Yesteryear Travel.

The Team has a special appreciation for archival films -- from family home movies to sponsored travel shorts. Senior editor Ken Smith is author of "Mental Hygiene," the definitive book-form history of America's classroom educational and industrial films. He was an archivist and cataloger for Rick Prelinger in the early days of the Prelinger Archives. This film is made available through the Prelinger Archives.

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