Seen and unseen - On the road

12 June 2024

When was the last time you looked at a traffic cone?  I mean, really considered it. Have you thought about how was it made, what is it doing, how did it get where it is? Well, now is your chance.  We have a cone on display in our current exhibition, Seen and unseen.

The first traffic cone as we know it was patented by Charles D. Scanlon in 1943 under the name ‘Safety Marker’.  Scanlon was a street painter who had noticed that the safety signs at the time were made of wood and would often be run over and broken.  He wanted to create a marker which would ‘return to its upright position after a glancing blow, and which may be dropped from a moving truck and assume an upright position’ (Scanlon, 1943).  Scanlon’s intention was that his markers could be made out of the fabric of old tyres which had had most of the rubber removed.  The base was to be heavier but still relatively soft and resilient so as not to damage any car that made hit it.  He also wanted the markers to be stackable so that they can be easily transported, a vent hole at the top of the cone would allow air to be expelled as the cone descends over the one below enabling it to freely settle into place.

Many of these features are still elements of the traffic cone that we know today.  The materials have changed but their functions are the same.  Our Starlite cone created by Melba Swintex is made of low density polyethylene (LDPE) with a heavier polyvinyl chloride (PVC) base.  The heavy base stops the cone from being displaced by weather whilst the lighter top sections mean it can be manoeuvred easily.  It still has a hole in the top to allow the air to escape as the cones are stacked, and the materials used mean that it will return to its shape if it is run over by traffic.

The intended use of the humble traffic cones is to direct traffic, warn of danger, and keep people safe. They function extremely well, especially when they have a reflective sleeve, like ours does, which helps them to be seen in the dark.  When the MoDiP team visited the House of Commons, see House of Commons visit, we spotted a few underneath the Elizabeth Tower keeping people away from some kind of hazard.

6 traffic cones in the grounds of the House of Commons with the Elizabeth Tower in the background.

Cones at the bottom of the Elizabeth Tower. Image: L Dennis


We do know that traffic cones have also become objects of fun with the temptation of ‘borrowing’ one being too much for some.  Their presence in unusual places have made them a cultural icon.   

A statue of a man mounted on a horse.  The man has a number of traffic cones balanced on his head.  The horse also has a cone on its head.

The equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington in front of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, Scotland, with multiple traffic cones stacked on the Duke's head and a traffic cone on the horse's head. Image: Ballerlikemahler.


Next time you spot a traffic cone, take some time to think about its history, consider what it is doing and why it looks the way it does.  However, leave it where it is and let it do its important job.

Louise Dennis, Curator of MoDiP

Scanlon, C.D., 1943. Safety marker. 2,333,273.