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Great Moments in Public Signage: The Pedantic Signage of the San Francisco Bay Area

March 6, 2014

There are moments in life where you can anticipate a question that will be asked of you: “How is your dissertation going?” and “Are you ready for the holidays?” among others. In these cases, it is best to have a sound bite prepared in advance.

Upon moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, one must be prepared to answer the question, “What do you think about it here?”

Perhaps at this moment the Californian expects to hear impressions of the abundance of sunshine, organic foods, and bicycles in the area. But this is not the answer they will receive, for a true rhetorician will instead comment on the abundance of pedantic signage in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The degree to which this will disappoint the person asking the question is the subject of another post; what is interesting to note here is (a) the conspicuous role that signage plays in regulating public life in the Bay Area and (b) how it appears at all levels of authority – from being legislatively encoded to originating locally. It is especially prevalent in public restrooms (but does not quite qualify as latrinalia as referenced in this post, since it comes from property owners rather than users). The signage takes on the mantle of an ark bearing the diverse rhetorical preferences of the owners, while the underlying message remains essentially the same: know and obey the rules.

Palo Alto motel parking lot sign posted in accordance with California Proposition 65.

Palo Alto motel parking lot sign posted in accordance with California Proposition 65.

This facility contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.  These chemicals are contained in emissions, fumes, and smoke from business operations, motor vehicle, employees and guest activities.

Other listed chemicals are contained in some of the products and services provided and in materials used to operate the business and maintain the property.

(Posted in accordance with Proposition 65 California health and safety code 25249.5 ET SEQ.)

For further information, contact the hotel registration desk.

Let us take State-level public signage into account. Proposition 65 regulates that businesses provide “clear and reasonable” posting of information about areas where chemical levels exceed exposure that would result in not more than one excess case of cancer in 100,000 individuals exposed to the chemical over a 70-year lifetime. However significant this number may be, the threshold is reached easily enough that the sign is displayed in almost every office building and parking lot, rendering it more pedantic than effective.

Women’s restroom, San Francisco International Airport

Women’s restroom, San Francisco International Airport

San Francisco International Airport SFO


In the above sign, the San Francisco International Airport owned and policed by the City and County of San Francisco displays a request to keep the restrooms clean. This is an example of a pedantic decree that is not legislatively mandated but is promulgated by public authorities.

Fry’s Restroom, Fremont, CA

Fry’s Restroom, Fremont, CA


In order to maintain the cleanliness and hygiene of our restrooms and to avoid spreading germs that cause illness … In consideration of others …


  • ALWAYS wash your hands before leaving the restroom to avoid spreading germs
  • ALWAYS use a paper protector when sitting on the toilet seat
  • ALWAYS put used paper towels in the wastebasket to avoid trash on the floor.  DO NOT FLUSH DOWN TOILET – CAUSES CLOGS.
  • ALWAYS put sanitary napkins and tampons in the receptacles provided. DO NOT FLUSH DOWN TOILET – CAUSES CLOGS.
  • ALWAYS…flush toilet tissue down the toilet – DO NOT THROW ON THE FLOOR – DO NOT FLUSH IN LARGE WADS – CAUSES CLOGS.
  • NEVER flush the toilet with your foot – this causes damage to the flushing system.
  • PLEASE Report any needed supplies to the Customer Service Dept., Supervisor in Charge


In the next example, we see a sign posted in the bathroom of Fry’s, a popular electronics store in Silicon Valley.  The originator of the signage has now shifted, from a public or semi-governmental entity to a private business. The laminated and semi-framed signage is meant to convey an air of officiality.

The sign expounds on the merits of bathroom behaviors such as why washing hands is important, how to use a toilet seat protector, and – most puzzlingly – instructing patrons not to flush the toilet with their feet. It is rare to see a toilet use sign of this length and detail outside of the Bay Area.

Vacation, vintage clothing store, Tenderloin neighborhood, San Francisco

Vacation, vintage clothing store, Tenderloin neighborhood, San Francisco

Vacation, vintage clothing store, Tenderloin neighborhood, San Francisco


The above sign at a vintage clothing store in San Francisco draws attention to how common it has become to display bathroom signage. The owners have taken license with the de rigueur posting by injecting humor into it.

Gas station, Santa Cruz Highway, CA

Gas station, Santa Cruz Highway, CA

Sign reads, “Help Keep It ClEN PLZ”

Finally, we see the trickle-down effect at its most pronounced.  Scrawled in faltering marker on a piece of paper taped to the door of a gas station restroom, patrons are urged to “KeeP It ClEN [sic]”, as private management enacts authority even in this arena.

Anthropologist Edward Hall would respond to such widespread and explicit signage as evidence of a low context culture. According to Hall, “a high-context (HC) communication or message is one in which … very little is [in] the coded, transmitted, explicit part of the message. A low-context (LC) communication is just the opposite; i.e., the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code” (1976: 91).

Clearly, much of the San Francisco Bay Area signage exemplifies a “mass of information” conveyed in the “explicit code.” While the local signage fits clearly within the parameters of a low context culture, the question becomes why the Bay Area would appear to be so low context. When compared to East Coast and Midwest counterparts, San Francisco appears by dint of its signage to be even lower context. How could a territory so often associated with a progressive, liberal lifestyle promulgate so many rules?

Recent California history offers us two hypotheses as to why this might be the case.

One reason is due to a litigious culture of compromise. California’s disparate interest groups have historically clamored for representation and been awarded that representation. The precedent had already been set by 1878, when stakeholders as diverse as farmers, railroad magnates, and municipal officials gathered to revise the state’s outdated constitution. “In the end,” state Richard Rice, William Bullough and Richard Orsi in The Elusive Eden, “the convention produced one of the world’s longest, most complex constitutions, more closely resembling a legal code than an organic law” which “satisfied almost no one” (298). Yet, the legacy and spirit of this constitution is present in contemporary signage over 125 years later.

At the same time, Californians seem to have an inherent fear of lawlessness, rooted in their borderline vigilante culture – vestiges of the “Wild West” – combined with the threat of natural disasters. Not counting undetected corruption, vigilante groups exerted formal influence on city crime and so-called retribution as early as 1850. Examples include the notorious Vigilance Committee which “effectively controlled the city” of San Francisco in the 1850s (The Elusive Eden 215).

As time progressed, signage became the simplest, most inexpensive way of regulating behavior throughout a city beset by lawlessness both natural and manmade. In 1906, the Bay Area earthquake ruptured San Francisco city infrastructure and left over 250,000 people homeless. This is the signage that was posted to impose order on a state of ruin:


Don’t Use Toilets

Epidemics Threatened


If You Want to Know More

  • Using high and low context communications as a framework in 1976’s Beyond Culture, Edward Hall offers us a handy entrée into rhetorical analysis of public signage. But there are other references that could help us analyze signage from a cultural perspective. Among these are Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, to name one. This article doesn’t take a lot of cultural signifiers into account; for instance, the current social composition of the Bay Area. Do you agree with this approach? Please share your thoughts.
  • It is also likely that other historical variables have been left out of this analysis – it would be interesting to hear more potential explanations for the pedantic signage of the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Writing this article got me to read a history textbook for fun. Apparently American history is more interesting than I thought. The Elusive Eden: A New History of California written by Richard B. Rice, William A. Bullough, and Richard J. Orsi, is a text that takes sociological and cultural factors into account in its narrative. Eden presents the perspectives of multiple minority groups whose voices are typically silenced in the classroom. It is a recommended read for anyone interested in the history of California (thanks, Robyn).
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