Welcome to AskMe, Population: why?
October 1, 2008 3:35 AM   Subscribe

Why do many American and Canadian towns list population numbers as you enter them, e.g. Welcome to Anytown, Population: 3,414

I work sometimes in the US and Canada, and pass such signs all the time, and I'm curious as to the reasoning, culture, laws and requirements that might lead to towns and cities doing this. Obviously I was familiar with it from Westerns as a kid, (generally with a few numbers being scored out after gunfights etc), but I see it everywhere, and I'm genuinely curious: why did towns and cities start doing this, and why do they continue? Is it just custom or is there a law somewhere that requires it?
posted by Happy Dave to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if there's a legal requirement, but the signs serve an informal functional purpose for travellers. You can use the population size to make a rough estimate of the kind of facilities that might be available there.

For example, if you're driving through Northern Ontario and you decide you want to stop for the night, you're far more likely to find a motel in a town with 50,000 people than one with 2000 people.
posted by generichuman at 3:56 AM on October 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Consider that for any legal purpose, the numbers are going to be inaccurate. Note that some towns even round off the figures. I seem to recall seeing a town (possibly Santa Barbara) on a drive down the California coast showing a round "120,000" the other day, whereas all smaller towns weren't rounded in this way.
posted by wackybrit at 4:03 AM on October 1, 2008

I suspect it's mostly marketing. The big towns are advertising their bigness, and he small towns are advertising their smallness.
posted by COD at 5:18 AM on October 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

Ditto the marketing, and the European ones will often have "Twinned with Nowheresville, Nowhereton and Nowhere-sur-Seine".
posted by carbide at 6:05 AM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

actually, from my experience, once you get into the western us, city signs tend to cite their elevation rather then their population. seems to start in new mexico/colorado/wyoming line, though i seem to recall seeing a few of them in the black hills of south dakota.
posted by lester at 6:29 AM on October 1, 2008

It's not uniform either. You won't find it in some states, and likewise, it might be visible at some towns, but not others in the same state.
posted by Atreides at 6:40 AM on October 1, 2008

Could this be a holdover from when the US was first settled? Population size must have been an important bragging point for new communities.
posted by ghost of a past number at 6:56 AM on October 1, 2008

Slightly off-topic but, on the subject of twin towns, I believe the main driver behind these was to foster good relations between the European nations after the Second World War. By twinning a town in England with towns of similar make-up in France and Germany, it was hoped this would create trust and also potentially provide support during the rebuilding process. The similar "similar make-up" criteria is often why you have Nowhere-on-Thames twinned with Nowhere-sur-Seine.

Of course, nowadays the presence of a twin town is more often simply used as a convenient place to source exchange students - or an excuse for a jolly by the local council :)
posted by oclipa at 7:36 AM on October 1, 2008

In Massachusetts and Connecticut, they use year of incorporation.
Here's a gallery of like a bazillion signs from across the U.S. (though not all are government-issue). Looks like population is standard across the middle of the country, and altitude is common out west.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:45 AM on October 1, 2008

In California, at least in the South and Central Coast, most cities show population and elevation, as lester said. Also, down the street from me is a twin city sign and there are different twin city signs scattered throughout the city.
posted by Korou at 9:11 AM on October 1, 2008

The term you're looking for is "boosterism."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:14 AM on October 1, 2008

Could this be a holdover from when the US was first settled?

Which reminds me: there are many, many towns on the east coast which state when they were first settled.
posted by ob at 9:37 AM on October 1, 2008

The elevation might be a Southwest thing; I don't remember seeing it on town-limits signs very much here in Washington, even in the mountains.

There are a surprising number of signs indicating that the local girls' softball team was state champions in such-and-such a year, though.
posted by hattifattener at 9:54 AM on October 1, 2008

In Southern Ontario, a former provincial government forced mergers among many communities, both rural and urban. It's always amusing to pass a sign that mentions the population of the merged community, when it may be really made up of 10 or 12 small towns several kilometres apart.
posted by Chuckles McLaughy du Haha, the depressed clown at 10:06 AM on October 1, 2008

I never knew why some towns listed their population on their city limits signs (and it always seemed to be the smaller places that did it), but it started a tradition in my family that lasted for many years. Anyone remember on Hee-Haw when they'd acknowledge some obscure township and say "Population XXXX" and everyone in the cornfield would stand up and yell "Sa-lute!"? My Dad was notorious for taking us to nowheresville on family vacations, and whenever we passed one of those population signs, he'd announce it and we'd all respond "Sa-lute!" What killed me, as I got older, even when Dad was very, very cranky about traffic, or motel room prices, or "is there a damned roadside tavern in this place?!", he would still stop in the middle of a behind-the-wheel tirade to announce "Entering Thorold, Ontario, population 21,760." Go figure.

In any case, in all my many road trips over the years, I've seen population numbers, elevation heights, championship school teams, and such listed on city limit signs. I recall a time when the city of Novi, Michigan's welcome sign stated simply "Harry James played here." So I guess it's a form of civic pride, but at least the population number alerts travelers as to whether they can expect a Hilton downtown or a Braidwell Motor Inn.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:18 AM on October 1, 2008

I've always assumed the numbers were based on the decennial US Census (which would explain inaccuracies), but I could be wrong.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:56 AM on October 1, 2008

I take it these "twin towns" are the European equivalent of what we call "sister cities" in the U.S.?
posted by kittyprecious at 12:28 PM on October 1, 2008

These signs are often regulated by state highway departments, and probably different states note the allowable items (population, elevation, founding, city/town/village/uninc., etc.). [example pdf]

I think one of the reasons for standardizing them may in fact be road safety. Another is possibly issues of disputes between municipalities, e.g. Touristrap (home of the world's most righteous steam engine) might object to N. Touristrap having a big sign declaring "Entering Touristrap (home of the world's most frabjous motorized contraption)". That sort of thing. But a lot of it is simply letting you know you are now under the jurisdiction of the local constable.
posted by dhartung at 3:40 PM on October 1, 2008

Great answers everybody, thanks!
posted by Happy Dave at 5:47 PM on October 1, 2008

« Older How to get camera to work on internet via WISP?   |   What to show on our office bigscreen? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.