A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: The big white signs that delineate town boundaries on state-maintained highways in Massachusetts. Proof that you have, in some roundabout way, gotten heah from theyah.
And here’s why I like them:
1. Tradition. It would probably be easier and cheaper to use smaller, plainer square or rectangular signs — the way they do here in Pennsylvania, where the town-line signs are about the size of a mail slot.
But when it comes to signs, Massachusetts is uncharacteristically not much for frugality or plainness. The state has used the big white signs for generations now, in a welcome triumph of tradition over the bottom line.
(The signs, which were once hand-painted and made from wood, are now metal; so in that regard, they are cheaper and longer-lasting than they used to be. They’re still a visual link to the past.)
2. Even more tradition. In a nice touch, the big white signs display the founding year of the community you’re entering.
Massachusetts, especially the eastern half, has some seriously deep roots, and you don’t have to drive far to find communities that date to the 17th century.
I used to go to work every day in a community founded in 1637; and seeing that on the town-line sign made me sit up a little straighter and pay attention. You can’t be a history buff and not like that kind of thing.
(Of course, this argument does a disservice to the Native Americans, who were on the land countless years before Anglos carved it into pieces and put big white signs on every edge.)
3. They’re one thing the richies can’t have. If you can afford a place on Nantucket — or even a long-term rental — there’s probably not much you can’t have.
One thing on the short list is a classic town line sign. That’s because the island of Nantucket is a stand-alone town connected to no other. No town line means no white sign.
You can buy magnets and coffee cups with a white “Entering Nantucket” sign, and there’s even a stock photo of one on the ‘Net, but it’s clearly a Photoshop job. I find no proof online that Nantucket has a classic white sign.
While I imagine wealth can buy all sorts of happiness, I don’t think Massachusetts seems quite the same without those signs around. They’re part of what makes the Bay State what it is.
4. There are 351 stories in the naked commonwealth. For reasons I probably once knew but can no longer remember, the town-line signs are shaped like open books.
The original generation of signs — which apparently began to be retired in the 1970s — had a more defined literary profile, so to speak, as shown in this photo my grandfather took circa 1958:
I love the subtle support for literacy — the idea that books could be so fundamental to society that they would lend their shape to a ubiquitous feature of municipal life.
(Yes, I suspect the Bible may have been the source of book-shaped inspiration here, which does not thrill me. But still. They’re books. Hooray for literacy and learning.)
I also dig the equally subtle suggestion that each one of Massachusetts’ cities and towns has its own story, which is yours to discover — or maybe even help write a chapter.
5. They double as America’s coolest state-line signs. Yup. Take a state highway out of Massachusetts and you get one last book-style town line sign, just to remind you what you’ll be missing up the road:
Edit, December 2018: A commenter mentions that MassDOT standards now call for town and city names to be lowercased on these signs. I recently saw my first such sign in that format, and thought I would post it for anyone looking for such a thing.