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Highway Shields and University Logos


Michigan, Wyoming, and, at one point, North Carolina.  Three states that have or had what appears to be their flagship university's logo within their highway shield.  Is that truly the case?

Within the roadgeek community - specific to those that are more sign enthusiasts - there has been debate on whether or not the three states do, did, or do not use the logo of their state universities in their highway shields.  Some say yes, while others say no.  So, I decided to take a closer look.

Michigan:

M-39 Highway Shield (Tom Fearer)

Big Blue. Trunkline highways which are noted as "M-Route Number."  At first glance, it sure does look like the M in a Michigan highway shield are the same - but when you look closely - they are not.

University of Michigan logo (1000logos.net)

The M in the University of Michigan logo is wider, and the point of the M is much lower than that of the Michigan highway shield.  As shown in the illustration below from Chris Bessert at michiganhighways.org, you can see that the two 'M's do not line up.  They are just different enough. 

The Michigan Highway M over top of the University of Michigan Block M.  The University logo is yellow, any overlap is Brown, and the Highway M is in blue.  (Image courtesy Chris Bessert / michiganhighways.org)

Even with that, the idea is that the use of the M for Michigan highways came from the university's block 'M.' Again, not really - a quick dive into the history of both 'M's is worth looking at.

The "Block M" of Michigan is to have first debuted on November 16, 1907, at a football game against the University of Pennsylvania. (1) From that point, the "Block M" slowly grew as the symbol of the university and its athletic programs. However, it wasn't until 1948 that the University of Michigan began to showcase the "Block M" in what we would call today its branding.  Over the next few decades, the "Block M" would develop even further as the symbol of the university.  In 1982, the University of Michigan applied for and received a trademark for its "Block M" logo.

Meanwhile, the development of the Michigan highway shield M began with Alan M. Williams with the Michigan State Highway Department.  Williams drafted the first state highway map in 1919, and it is considered that he was instrumental in designing the state highway marker. Williams was a 1916 graduate of the University of Michigan. (2)

In the end, it is just coincidental. The M in the highway shield debuted just as the University's "Block M" began taking hold. However, it was nearly 30 years before the Block M was officially part of the university's logo - and the two shapes are just different enough not to conflict with any trademark issues.

Wyoming:

Wyoming Highway Shields (Adam Prince)

The Bucking Horse and Rider. It is synonymous with the State of Wyoming. It is the logo for the University of Wyoming; it's on the state highway shield, and just about anywhere in Wyoming. They are all the same logo, and it is also a trademarked property of the state.

The use of the bucking horse and rider dates to World War I as the insignia worn by members of the Wyoming National Guard serving in France and Germany. (3)  The design is displayed throughout the state - from the university to highway shields and license plates to almost anything. The logo's origin is credited to a photograph of a famous rodeo horse named "Steamboat" taken at the Albany County Fair in 1903.

The University of Wyoming logo (1000logos.net)

The University of Wyoming first used the Bucking Horse and Rider for its logo in 1921. By 1936, it was well-known enough to be showcased on the state's license plates and highway shields.  Due to concerns about the counterfeit use of the logo, the state applied for and received a copywrite for the design in 1936. It has been since trademarked as a joint effort between the State of Wyoming and the University of Wyoming.

North Carolina:

NC 150 Cutout shield at the North Carolina Transportation Museum (Adam Prince)

Until the mid-late 1960s, the North Carolina highway shield had an interlocking 'NC' at the top of the diamond above the numerals. And like Michigan's, at first look, it appears to be the same as the logo for the University of North Carolina.  And like Michigan's, it wasn't.

The difference between the two logos is the vertical lines in the letter 'N.' While the NC highway shield N was straight, the UNC 'N' had curved vertical lines.

The 1901-1931 University of North Carolina Logo (logos-world.net)

As for what came first, the interlocking NC first appeared as the university's logo as early as the 1890s and has stuck ever since.  The NC highway shield first appeared in 1921 with an interlocking NC, but as discussed earlier, with a slightly different N. At most, the interlocking NC within the highway shield was "inspired" by UNC's logo.

By the 2000s, it was rare to find any interlocking NC signs standing.  This one near Troutman was one of the last standing. (Chris Patriarca, 2003)

The University of North Carolina trademarked the interlocking NC in 1982. (5) By then, the use of the interlocking NC on highway shields had long ended.  It has been suggested within the roadgeek community that it would be nice for North Carolina to bring back the interlocking NC in its highway shield - I am not sure if that will ever happen.

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