(Host) What can a sign tell us about the past? The Vermont Historical Society hopes to help answer that with an exhibit of historic signs at the Vermont History Museum.
VPR’s Neal Charnoff recently paid a visit.
(Charnoff) The Vermont History Museum tells the story of the state through artifacts, books and documents.
Daily tours are popular, especially with school groups, such as this one that huddled inside an exhibit that includes an Abenaki Indian hut.
(Tour) "Okay, cool, so one more question I’m gonna ask you and then we’re gonna leave the hut."
(Charnoff) A stroll down a museum hallway now takes you past signposts of history dating from the early 1800s through the late 1900s.
Each sign represents a moment in time, whether it’s welcoming Long Trail hikers, pointing to a fallout shelter, or advertising a local business.
Museum curator Jackie Calder begins a tour at an early 19th century toll sign for people traveling between Peru and Manchester Depot.
It lists different rates for a number of different vehicles, including pleasure carriages, wagons, carts and sleds. Calder says this was a private road.
(Calder) "In the early 19th century, a lot of the big building booms for roads and canals were paid for and run by private citizens, so very often when you wanted to go the fastest way across someone’s bridge you had to pay a toll."
(Charnoff) "And in this case we’re looking at some of the tolls might be fifty cents, and then four cents for each additional beast."
(Calder) "Yes! Ha ha ha."
(Charnoff) "And it looks like a good deal on sheep or swine is six cents a dozen."
(Calder) "Well, because they would have been going through probably in big herds, and also it probably took quite a bit of time to get across your road, so maybe you charge a little bit more."
(Charnoff) Some of the signs are for private businesses, and most were made locally. A typical sign is for a dentist from Woodstock, with gold on black lettering. The turn-of-the-century sign reads "Herman Burbridge, DDS."
(Caldert) "It’s different in that at the bottom corner it’s actually signed by the sign-maker, whose initials were E.P.T, thought we don’t know who he was."
(Charnoff) Most of the signs are wood or metal, but one insulating business used a large canvas sign, which was portable, and could be put up wherever the work was being done.
(Calder) "And a lot of these signs, the newer signs very often have a phone number on them, and we’ve been able to track down information on them by looking at local directories, so this had a phone number, one of the 3-digit numbers, no letters yet, phone 1-5-4."
(Charnoff) More recent signs include the original marquee from Montpelier’s Savoy Theater, and an early metal prototype for Green-up Vermont. Calder says most of the signs were donated, although the historical society occasionally buys one.
(Caldert) "Of course signs are going up in value, they’ve become decorative items in a lot of people’s homes, especially the more human-scale ones that date from the 19th century, because they’re very attractive, they’ve become folk-art items."
(Charnoff) Jackie Calder says the signs are something everyone can relate to, whether they’re relatively modern, or from the horse-and-buggy days.
(Calder) "I think they’re familiar to us, we certainly recognize and come in here and we know what a sign is, but then we look a little closer, and it makes us think about things from the past, things that are still here, like Green-up day and the Savoy Theater, so I think it shows us how things have changed but also how things have stayed the same, and how we certainly can relate very closely to the past on a personal level."
(Charnoff) Calder is also encouraging people to visit the Museum’s main exhibit, which is named after the state motto, "Freedom and Unity."
For VPR News, I’m Neal Charnoff