Where McDonald's Got its Arches

Courtesy of Tau Zero / Flickr.

Does anything signify the auto-centric dream of mid-century suburbia more than McDonald's? In the words of The Simpsons, "If it does, I don't want to know about it."

But that signature "golden arches" sign wasn't always part of the chain's identity, at least not as we know it, as I learned recently via a cerebral post by Jimmy Stamp in Smithsonian magazine's Design Decoded blog. The arches have been there from the start, but the sign came later.

In making the point that McDonald's exterior design held true to tenets of modernism, Stamp tracked down Alan Hess's history of those famous arches in a 1986 issue of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians:

According to Hess, the initial idea for the golden arches—and they were called “golden arches” from the very beginning—came from “a sketch of two half circle arches drawn by Richard McDonald.” It just seemed to him like a memorable form that could be easily identified form a passing car. The longer a driver could see it from behind a windshield, the more likely he or she would be to stop.

Originally, the arches sprouted from either side of the building itself, but as the company sought to modernize its look in 1962, designers hit on the idea to link the arches. Jonathan Attebery, of How Stuff Works, explains:

When viewed from a certain angle, the arches framing McDonald's restaurants formed an "M," so the company incorporated the arches into its new logo. In fact, early versions of the Golden Arches have a diagonal line, representing the roofline of the restaurants, cutting across the middle of the "M." The new logo proved a huge success, and the company stuck with the design even as McDonald's began removing the architectural golden arches from its restaurants throughout the sixties.

And that's where the arches remain today, sprouting from that iconic sign, a symbol not of the St. Louis arch or the arches of Rome, but self-referencing, harkening back to the early days of McDonald's itself, and the car culture from which it sprang.