Memory  /  Explainer

Why Historical Markers Matter

Few realize that the approval process for these outdoor signs varies widely by state and organization, enabling unsanctioned displays to slip through.

The vast majority of states operate some kind of statewide historical marker program. But identifying which agency, commission, museum or society is responsible for it is a guessing game until you get down to specifics. Sometimes the biggest history entity in the state runs the show; other times, it’s the smallest. Sometimes it’s a government agency or commission of some kind, while in other places, the program is run entirely by a private nonprofit. In general, most state marker programs operate with a similar process. Community groups apply for a marker. An entity reviews the applications, then researches and develops text in collaboration with the applicants. Community groups raise money to fund the creation and installation of the marker, whose design must be approved by the state before being sent to an outside manufacturer.

Virginia is home to the country’s oldest historical marker program. In 1927, the state began placing roadside markers to document events and people deemed historically important in the corridor between the state capital of Richmond and Mount Vernon, the onetime home and plantation of George Washington. Indicative of the messy nature of state history, the program moved homes several times during the first few decades of its existence. Today, it’s under the umbrella of the government-run Department of Historic Resources, outside the aegis of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture (owned and operated, in turn, by the nonprofit Virginia Historical Society, the state’s oldest cultural institution).

During the middle decades of the 20th century, dozens of other states developed their own statewide marker programs, many of which operated with a similarly dizzying mix of public and private caretakers. By 1976, the year of the U.S.’s bicentennial commemoration—which, among other things, saw an explosion of interest in documenting and preserving local history—states had erected thousands of markers along roadsides, outside county courthouses, on battlefields and in public squares, establishing official recognition of an often-limited view of what counted as historically significant.

Today, this complicated system poses major challenges. For one thing, the shifting responsibility for historical markers over the past half-century has made it difficult for some states to track the locations and content of their signs. In Washington, where stone monuments with plaques are more common than the sign-on-a-stick markers seen elsewhere, the state historical society recently underwent a major audit of its state-sponsored markers, asking residents to upload photos and GPS coordinates when they found relevant displays. “Many [plaques] probably hadn’t been seen in many years,” says Jennifer Kilmer, the society’s director.