Origin/Purpose of Population on Town Signs

When driving into a town, I often notice that there’s a sign with the name of the town and population listed on it. What is the reasoning for printing the population of the town? I assume that it’s part of a tradition going back at least to those Western films where you’d see the town with the population numbers going lower and being scratched off as inhabitants die, but.

Ok, the thing about the Westerns was a joke. What’s the purpose? Tax collecting in the Middle Ages? Helping out travelling salesmen with demographics?

WAG: It’s to give you an idea of how big the town is, so that if you’re looking for somewhere to eat, you know whether you’ve already passed almost all the restaurants in the town, or you still have several in front of you.

That’s probably totally wrong. They also have elevation sometimes, which could be useful, but I’m not sure how.

I was surprised to see that when I moved out here to Colorado, they have the elevation in place of the population. I guess the cities out here are growing too quickly, but elevation is always constant. :smiley: Of course, in my city, the elevation varies throughout by almost 1,000 feet. I wonder how they choose what point is the official elevation.

I’m also in Colorado. I’m pretty sure there are two schools of thought on this.

  1. Elevation of Town Hall.
  2. Highest elevation of any part of the incorporated area.

I live above Alma at 11,200’. Alma and Montezuma (and sometimes Leadville) get in a tiff once in a while over who is at a higher elevation. I think they finally agreed that Leadville was the highest City, Alma the highest town. I’m pretty sure Alma is higher than both of them.

Large cities do not give a population figure. I associate this with what Bunkie Hunt said when asked how much money he had. His answer was “Anyone that knows how much they are worth, isn’t worth very much.” So any town or city that can tell you what the population is doesn’t have a very large population. :wink:

I don’t know about that, out here in L.A. there are a couple signs that have the population of the city as you cross over the border.

Then, of course, are the ones which read: “Home of 2731 friendly folks and 1 sorehead”


When you cross the Bay Bridge, the signs for San Francisco on one side and Oakland on the other give population figures. So do signs surrounding San Jose, which is more populous than either of those two.

On the same California trip on which I discovered the above, I encountered a sign for a town (?) just outside Sequoia National Park on route 180: “Buck Lodge, Population 0.” I think it’s a couple of cabins for visitors to the area but no permanent residents.

But I think there’s a different number on every sign!

I like how they give the elevation, too:

Pop: 3,652,493
Elev: 48

Actually, the “different number on each sign” is like the old McDonald’s “over 75,000,000 served” signs – it varies according to when the sign was erected. BTW, L.A. is an example of a reference point altitude – in this case, presumably the street level of city hall, since it varies from 0 (on the beaches at San Pedro) to several hundred feet (above Hollywood and the other northern districts).

Actually, my impression is that the purpose of population on such signs was in the nature of “booster” activities – “Hey, Mr. Businessman, there are over 2,500 people in this town that would buy your merchandise/services!”

My favorite California town sign around here is for Palo Alto. Most of the town is right near sea level because its on San Francisco Bay, but there’s a little finger of the town that stretches up into the Santa Cruz mountains. Because of that, there’s a city limit sign along Skyline Blvd. (Highway 35) which says elevation 55, despite the fact that at that moment you are about at about 2000 feet.