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Five For The Record: Massachusetts town line signs.

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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.

(The island of Martha’s Vineyard, in contrast, is divided into six towns; and you can find the familiar white signs there. When I hit the Powerball, I know which island I’ll be moving to.)

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.


12 responses »

  1. Not sure how old this is, but I love these signs, for a few years now, I’ve taken pictures of these signs as I cross city/town lines on my bicycle, I have just over 100 now, it’s quite a fun addiction 🙂

  2. Jessica Jameson

    Lovely signs– it’s a subtle touch, but really adds a lot of New England Charm! Would you happen to know what font is used?

  3. I just made some Entering Signs as gifts, so I find this site very interesting. Does anyone know when the State first started with using this style? I did a search, but came up empty.
    The ones I made were roughly 3 by 4 inches. I used 1/2″ Corian, so they could sit upright on a shelf.

  4. I have always adored these signs and have a few pictures of them now.

  5. According to page 72 of this MassDOT document on signage style standards (, the name of the municipality should appear with an initial capital letter (“Boston”) rather than all caps (“BOSTON”).

    The style document says this type treatment was implemented in 2016. I no longer live in Massachusetts, but visited this summer and don’t recall seeing it. Has anyone seen it on the roads?

    • Jon: I saw my first one in this style today, entering Cambridge from Boston on the Longfellow Bridge. Understandably, it looked kinda weird – so much so that I wondered if the city, not MassDOT, had put it up. But in all other respects it looked like a regular town line sign.

    • Saw one of these today for the first time (entering Lanesborough on Route 7 southbound). I’ve been scouring the web trying to confirm that I saw what I thought I saw, and found this site.

  6. Rob Dobrusin

    I love these signs since I was a little kid growing up in Boston. I’ve taken many pictures and written about the signs, even giving a sermon based on them (I’m a clergy). But, I am concerned about the lower case Cambridge sign- just doesn’t look right. Why did they have to change it?

    • Thanks for reading. That must have been an interesting sermon! Yes, the new ones do look weird. I imagine in 10 years they will look normal but it will take some time.

  7. One of the reasons these are so prominent is because, unlike in other parts of the country, might be because the town or city is the dominant unit of local government, rather than the county. Most county governments in Massachusetts have been abolished because they were seen as redundant to the stronger local and sate governments. The ones that remain have very weak governments that serve some vestigial tasks (with the possible exception of Barnstable County (Cape Cod). Most, if not all, people in Massachusetts know what town they live in, but many may not know what country their town is in.


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