I have lived in Massachusetts most of my life, and I have always been aware of these distinctive historical markers. The first one I really remember was the one for the Fairbanks House in Dedham. We lived nearby and used to pass it all the time. Then I noticed others around occasionally when we went on Sunday drives. I never gave them much thought, though — I’ve always just thought of them as part of the landscape.
Then I started photographing them and putting them on Flickr, and it became a sort of game, trying to “collect” as many as I could find. They were put in place as part of in 1930, and although they’re sturdy, heavy signs made of iron, many have been lost over the years to storms, accidents, development and other causes. I have heard that some may have been melted down in a World War II iron drive, but no one really knows what happened to them all, or how many are left.
But we do know how many there were, where they were located and what they said, because the book Historical Markers Erected by Massachusetts Bay Colony is available from the Internet Archive. The book was published in 1930 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and it’s an alphabetical list by community with the text and location of every marker, and includes a few photographs of the markers. It’s interesting reading these. It makes me wonder how the decisions were made on what places and events were selected for the markers.
The text for the signs was revised and approved by historian Samuel Eliot Morrison, giving them a high degree of trustworthiness. However, at least one sign, the John Rogers Homestead, had an error. The text reads: “Near this spot stood the John Rogers homestead, which was destroyed in the Indian massacre of 1695, and the entire family killed.” However, the entire family was not killed, according to the 1816 An Historical Memoir of Billerica, in Massachusetts. This sign has the last phrase, “and the entire family killed” painted out. This is an interesting effect. The intent of the white paint to remove the text is clear, but the raised letters make it easy to read the original text. It’s much like strikeover text online…it makes the correction while preserving record of the error.
The condition of the markers varies greatly. Some are in excellent condition, some are in good shape and show signs of repair and restoration, and some are in poor condition, like the Oldest House in Cambridge marker. MassHighway is responsible for maintenance, and this post on their blog, Historic Signs of a Job Well Done, shows a marker before and after restoration, and asks the public to report markers in need of attention.
The signs were erected in 1930 with the auto tourist in mind, and are placed so they can be read from the car. Most are easy to photograph, especially since they have two identical sides. I try both sides to get the best results in terms of both light and background.
I’m not the only one photographing these, of course. I started the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary Historical Markers group on Flickr, and others have posted some pictures there. There are also many of the signs photographed and documented on two of my favorite sites: the Historic Marker Database (Example: The Church in Salem Village) and the Waymarking site (Example: Macy-Colby House.)