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Gaze Upon the Faded Glory of Route 66’s Signs

Photos of neon signs and advertisements along one of America’s most iconic highways.

A wall sign in Pontiac, Illinois, celebrating Route 66.
A wall sign in Pontiac, Illinois, celebrating Route 66. All Photos: Jim Hinckley/Courtesy Quarto Publishing

When, in 1926, a new highway called U.S. Highway 66 was opened between Illinois and California, few could have envisioned its future cultural importance. It was promoted as the “shortest, best and most scenic route” from Chicago to Los Angeles, yet it soon took on additional significance. 

A little over a decade after opening, Route 66 was immortalized in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as “the mother road, the road of flight”—a reference to the thousands of people who traveled along this route during the Great Depression. Twenty years after opening, Nat King Cole had a 1946 hit with “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66”; in the 1960s, there was even an eponymous TV show.

By the 1980s, however, drivers had started to favor wider, higher-speed interstate highways. Route 66 was decommissioned in 1985. Since then, the highway has been subject to preservation efforts. Route 66 has, in the words of Congress, “become a symbol of the America people’s heritage of travel and their legacy of seeking a better life.”

There is a particular nostalgia that surrounds Route 66. It evokes gleaming cars and old school diners, roadside attractions and kitschy road signs. It’s the latter that is the subject of the new book Route 66 Roadside Signs and Advertisements, by Joe Sonderman and Jim Hinckley. Crammed full of images of faded signs, restored neon and painted murals, the book is a tribute to the markers that guided decades of travelers on their way across America.

Vintage signs for the Cattleman's Club & Cafe in Amarillo, Texas. Cattleman's has been in business since 1961.
Vintage signs for the Cattleman’s Club & Cafe in Amarillo, Texas. Cattleman’s has been in business since 1961.
The Rainbow Rock Shop, complete with roadside dinosaurs, in Holbrook Arizona.
The Rainbow Rock Shop, complete with roadside dinosaurs, in Holbrook Arizona.
The neon sign for the Luna Cafe in Mitchell, Illinois, which first opened in 1932. The sign was restored in 2012.
The neon sign for the Luna Cafe in Mitchell, Illinois, which first opened in 1932. The sign was restored in 2012.
The Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Oklahoma, crammed with vintage signs.
The Sandhills Curiosity Shop in Oklahoma, crammed with vintage signs.
The 1956 Sonrise Donuts sign still stands in Springfield, Illinois, but the coffee bar itself has closed.
The 1956 Sonrise Donuts sign still stands in Springfield, Illinois, but the coffee bar itself has closed.
The 66 Drive-in Theatre in Carthage, Missouri. It first opened in 1948, closed in 1985 and was restored and reopened in 1997.
The 66 Drive-in Theatre in Carthage, Missouri. It first opened in 1948, closed in 1985 and was restored and reopened in 1997.
The sign for Roy's Motel and Cafe in Amboy, California.
The sign for Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy, California.
The neon Meadow Gold milk sign in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was first displayed in 1934 and subsequently refurbished and moved in 2009.
The neon Meadow Gold milk sign in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was first displayed in 1934 and subsequently refurbished and moved in 2009.