A Century of Marking History: 100 Years of the PA Historical Marker Program

By John K. Robinson and Karen Galle
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XL, Number 4 - Fall 2014

It's a safe bet that when Susan Richard of Grantville, Dauphin County, comes across a historical marker for the first time, she's going to stop her car, get out and read it, and then take a picture for her collection. Richard, a former museum docent, loves everything about historical markers. "Historical markers are so much fun!" she says. "This is history you will probably never learn in the classroom. Where else can you find out where the banana split originated?"

Richard stops whenever she sees a marker and makes planned excursions in search of them, usually a county at a time. Her photo albums intrigue visitors to her home, and she looks at them often herself.

Markers are many things to many people. They are memorials, history lessons, travelers' guideposts, tourist attractions and a source of pride for communities that have them. They enlighten, inform and inspire the reader. Their brief stories of Pennsylvania's history are part of the story of each of its citizens. Once they appear in the landscape, conversations arise and further research takes place. People actually talk to each other about the markers and what they mean to them.

According to George R. Beyer's Guide to the Historical Markers of Pennsylvania it was on July 25, 1913, that an Act of the General Assembly created the Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC), and one of its major responsibilities was to "mark by proper monuments, tablets, or markers, places or buildings within this Commonwealth, where historical events have transpired, and . . . arrange for the care and maintenance for such markers or monuments."

PHC resolved to survey the state to learn what memorials or monuments had already been created under state appropriation. Next it would see what private individuals and organizations had commemorated and visit certain areas to ascertain how those markers were created and maintained. Finally PHC would speak with established historical societies to seek their help in developing a comprehensive plan to mark places of historic importance.

Early historical markers were sometimes affixed to elaborate monuments, such as the first one in 1914 for Fort McCord, near Edenville. PHOTO BY JOHN K. ROBINSON

On this list was an abundance of sites relating to the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, including battlefields and forts, early iron furnaces and forges, houses of important persons, churches, industrial sites, Native American villages and early European settlements.

PHC took its work seriously as it began the next year to install some 149 bronze plaques, the first at Fort McCord in Franklin County. While the marker at Fort McCord took the form of a Celtic cross atop a base of cut stone to which a bronze plaque was attached, most of the earliest plaques were shaped like a keystone cast with the Commonwealth's coat of arms, followed by a succinct but complete text describing the place being memorialized and ending with credits for PHC and the partnering organization and the year erected. These were rarely mounted on buildings but often on large stones gathered from the Pennsylvania countryside.

Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945) designed later bronze plaques. Born in Lyon, France, Cret came to the United States in 1903. In addition to the many buildings he designed, his work includes a number of monuments, and he served on the American Battle Monuments Commission from 1923 to 1945. Cret's design was more classical, with the coat of arms, the text laid out within a rectangular double border, and the usual attributions and date.

In his report of PHC from 1923 to 1927, chairman Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958) described with obvious pride the effort made to find suitable marker stones: "Nearly all of them are weathered or time-stained, or water worn, and of a natural, irregular, picturesque shapeliness. They have been found on hills or mountains, in streams, or other nearby places, and with great difficulty and toil brought to the location selected."

Shoemaker goes on to explain that creating most of the markers and conducting appropriate dedication ceremonies cost around $1,000. This expense was borne almost entirely by local historical or patriotic organizations. Even the handsome announcements of the marker dedications, distributed at the ceremonies as programs and to the press, members of the state legislature, boards of historical societies and individuals interested in Pennsylvania history, were printed with nonpublic money.

Shoemaker was keenly aware of the need to share expenses, because the General Assembly had not yet provided the level of funding needed to carry out the programs of PHC. Simon J. Bronner, in his book Popularizing Pennsylvania, writes that Shoemaker himself had in fact paid for several historical monuments since at least 1912. That year he paid for a marker at Fort Horn, one of the frontier forts built prior to 1783 as a defense against the natives, which was near his home in McElhattan, Clinton County.

In describing the dedication ceremonies in his report, Shoemaker writes that large numbers of people attended, schools were closed and pupils brought to the site, speeches were given, and there was always an address in which "the story of Pennsylvania history was presented impartially in a pictorial and definite manner, thereby arousing a greater love and knowledge of the history of the State and of the several communities."

Dedication ceremonies, such as this one for Hockendauqua Indian Town in September 1925, included a presentation of the deed, speeches and an unveiling of the marker. Chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission Henry W. Shoemaker, second to the right of the marker in this photo, presided at most of the ceremonies. PHMC/BUREAU FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION


Progress in marking history was accompanied by progress in improving roads. In 1893 J. Frank Duryea built the first automobile that was commercially successful. By 1905 there were 79,000 autos registered in the United States. By 1921 there were 2.5 million vehicles. The speed limit of 25 miles per hour still allowed motorists to slow down, pull over and read the historical plaques. But by 1929, because of improved road conditions, the speed limit rose to 40 miles per hour. This made it somewhat impractical to stop and read a plaque. Besides, Americans with cars had places to go, and in a hurry.

George R. Beyer wrote in his 1991 edition of the marker guide that new plaques were created and installed through 1933 and then suspended until after World War II. In 1945 PHC, the State Archives and the State Museum merged to become the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), and a new era began for the Historical Marker Program.

Like the earlier program, this one was largely staff-driven. The new PHMC set out to create 500 markers of a new kind that had already proved successful in other states. The new markers would use a gold-colored text of raised characters on a deep blue background contained within a silver-colored frame. The posts would be made of concrete. This "history on a stick" style would be easier for motorists to see and enjoy and certainly far less difficult to install than the older boulder plaques.

Historical societies were once again asked to contribute suggestions for markers. Some had national and statewide significance, but many were of local interest only. PHMC's staff committee made the final choices. Special markers were created for each of the historic properties PHMC had acquired since establishing the historic sites program. Still others introducing Pennsylvania were placed on major highways where they entered the state.

PHMC exceeded its goal for markers by installing 1,000 of them along streets and highways between 1946 and 1956. Looking back today we are able to see the perspectives and biases of those who chose marker topics and wrote texts for them in the middle of the 20th century. Many of those markers might even be considered outdated, inaccurate or somewhat fantastic impressions of the "romantic past" of Pennsylvania about which Henry Shoemaker wrote.

Liquid aluminum is poured into sand molds to create the marker plates. COURTESY SEWAH STUDIOS

Eventually two types of markers evolved. The larger and wider roadside markers were joined by smaller and more vertical city markers, more suitable for urban settings. These two types, created in the 1940s, are still manufactured today.

The markers are cast of aluminum in a foundry. Once a text has been approved it is sent to the foundry, where a craftsman sets it in individual characters temporarily affixed to a metal plate. After this is completed, a picture is sent to the marker program office, where it is checked for spelling and spacing. This is the last chance for any changes.

The plate is then used to make sand molds that are cast in aluminum, a process not unlike that of the iron furnaces that some of the markers now commemorate. The completed plate cools and is painted. It is then shipped with a frame and post to the local cooperating organization, which oversees its installation.

Since 1914 well over 2,000 markers have been erected throughout the Commonwealth. Over the last few decades the nomination process has become exclusively public-driven. Staff has provided assistance with preparation of many nominations, but the interested members of the public are responsible for the completion of the form and doing the research to document the subject's significance.

PHMC has established "approval criteria" for evaluating marker nominations. The criteria have been slightly revised since first adopted in the 1980s, but the primary criterion, "that the subject have statewide and/or national rather than local or regional historical significance," remains in effect. A requirement for inclusion of scholarly documentation with each nomination was recently added to ensure accuracy of the markers. Although often implied previously, the criteria currently include the requirement that the subject, if an individual, have a substantial connection to Pennsylvania, more than simply having been born here.

A guideline sheet is provided with each nomination form and it includes questions to consider when proposing a subject for a marker. There are also tips about what the panel is and is not seeking. For example, "a nomination that suggests a subject solely due to sensationalism, durability or longevity, or philanthropy or beneficence does not conform with the intention of the State Historical Marker Program." Most nominations submitted for the "oldest" of a type of site or organization are unsuccessful. If the subject was the oldest and "first" of a type, it would have a better chance of success, because being the first suggests a level of innovation that is not necessarily present with something that is simply the oldest. If the oldest site or organization ceased to exist, the marker may become invalid, but if it was the first of a type, it will always be the first.

Historical marker for The Christiana Riot.

The most common reason that a subject is not approved is that it does not have statewide or national historical significance. This criterion can be subjective, but it is expected that the person's actions, achievements or contributions had broad impact on a statewide or national level. For example, a person who served as a state senator or even a U.S. senator would not automatically qualify for a PHMC marker. The person would have had to have been the sole or primary author or sponsor of legislation that had broad and lasting impact or possibly been involved in a national political campaign. If the person brought national attention to an important issue in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a marker may be warranted. Nominations for churches are quite common, but only those that were the first of a denomination, were the site of an important event, or prompted changes within the larger church would be approved for a marker.

It is generally helpful for a potential nominator to consult with PHMC staff in the initial stages of their research. Staff is available to review draft nominations, provide advice on whether or not a particular subject is viable, and suggest ways to adjust focus or sources to pursue that would afford one a better chance for approval. PHMC is especially interested in encouraging markers for underrepresented subjects or regions in Pennsylvania.

Many of these markers were installed without any sort of ceremony or recognition. The first one, however, received some special attention. The Hanover Resolves marker installation was witnessed by then-PHMC chairman (and later governor) James H. Duff in September 1946 at a site 14 miles east of Harrisburg on U.S. Route 22. Duff was accompanied by Commissioners Charles G. Webb and Thomas Murphy, who was chair of the marker committee. That marker still stands today, commemorating the June 4, 1774, call for independence should the American colonies' grievances not be addressed by the British.

Besides providing a survey of Pennsylvania history along the state's roadsides, all of this activity helped to strengthen the bond between PHMC and local supporters and organizations. Many of the commemorations of that era, however, did not meet today's standards of exhibiting national or statewide significance and were of local interest only. Some markers present stories that would be interpreted as much less important today. Others use words of a previous era that might be considered insensitive to modern readers.

As time passed the program prospered but again became more staff-driven. Beginning in the 1970s approval of the governing commission was needed for each new marker. By the next decade a staff committee reviewed all nominations, many of which had been submitted by yet other staff members. This allowed the marker program to focus on subjects that had not been addressed previously but were now being recognized by the public and professional historians alike, and so more markers recognized women, ethnic and immigration history, organized labor and other social history topics.

By the 1980s many state agencies, including PHMC, began to see a reduction in budget and staff, leaving the Historical Marker Program with one professional historian at the helm. The staff committee continued to function, and many new markers were nominated and approved, although they often ended up in a "pending" file awaiting sponsors.

A part-time marker maintenance employee struggled to collect aging markers from around the state, clean and paint them, and return them to their locations. Maintenance of the posts and frames presented other problems and occasioned much travel to repair or replace them.

The program began to change in the 1990s as PHMC opened up its nomination process, allowing any group or individual to nominate a marker. This turn away from centralized control of the program to a public-driven one instilled new life and energy into the program. Although the program was still directed substantially by one administrator, the maintenance of markers improved dramatically through contractors who collected markers - often a whole county at a time - and returned them fresh as new.

The first marker in the style used today, Hanover Resolves, was dedicated in September 1946 by PHMC chairman James H. Duff (center), commissioner Charles G. Webb (left) and marker committee chair Thomas Murphy (right). RG-13/PA STATE ARCHIVES

Nominations began to flood in from the public. They covered all sorts of topics, many with great merit but others of purely local interest or sentimental importance to the nominator. Although individuals, interest groups, churches and even local governments have nominated over the years, it is local historical organizations that have been most involved in suggesting topics, funding marker production and dedicating markers with a public program. Many county historical societies have filled this role over the years.

Jesse Teitelbaum, former executive director of the Luzerne County Historical Society, says that markers are a relatively easy way to educate many people on historical topics and not just on dedication day, but through the years. The historical society nominated and dedicated a number of markers during Teitelbaum's tenure. "Board members and staff at Luzerne County generally initiated the discussion about what subject merited a marker. The society solicited donations from our members, and we were generally able to generate the funds needed to match the marker program's grant. Municipalities installed the markers at no cost."

The society then organized a proper dedication ceremony, with invitations going out to local officials and affinity groups, county and state officials, and interested individuals. News releases to local media invited the public to attend.

Like many marker dedications, Luzerne County's included a brief address followed by the unveiling of the marker itself. "For many, this is the highlight of the ceremony - seeing ‘our' marker standing here for all to read," Teitelbaum says. "Markers also encourage readers to go beyond the brief text and learn more by visiting local historical societies, museums, libraries or online research sites."

Since the marker program opened up, hundreds of nominations have been considered, with just a small percentage meeting all of the criteria as applied by an independent panel of professional historians, educators, and museum and historical society directors. At the current time, sponsoring organizations are asked to fund the entire process of manufacturing, installing and dedicating a marker. Of those marker subjects approved by the panel and the commission, nearly all are produced and installed.

The marker program staff and the organization or individual sponsoring the marker will come to an agreement on the text, which must meet guidelines that assure as much as possible that it will be meaningful for generations to come. Next a site is selected for installation. Markers may be placed on or near the actual site of the person, place or event being commemorated, or they may find a home in a central location where their exposure is greater.

Road-trippers like to take selfies in front of markers and send them to Waymarking.com and other historic travel websites. Here coauthor John K. Robinson takes a selfie in front of the marker for the John Harris Mansion in Harrisburg.

There is anecdotal evidence that markers can bring pride to neighborhoods that have seen better days but whose histories are rich. A marker may engender positive action on the part of those who see it each day. One story tells of neighbors planting flowers around the base of the marker. Over the years that little flower bed grew into a small park on the site of a demolished building. Houses near the marker were fixed up, attracting new residents and even businesses.

The public has been helpful in the difficult task of maintaining the markers at an acceptable level of appearance. Local historical organizations and individuals report markers damaged or in disrepair. Missing markers are often reported, too, and while every attempt is made to locate them, some are lost forever because of traffic accidents, snowplowing, vandalism and theft. In general funds are not available for replacement, but local groups sometimes step up and provide the means for a new one.

Up until 2000 the texts and locations of all the markers were available only in the marker guides prepared by the marker program and published by PHMC. Although always in demand, the guides were obsolete before they were published, because new markers were constantly being installed. Several years would pass before an updated edition of the guide could be produced.

With the advent of the Internet, the printed guide was no longer the best way to distribute the marker information. Instead, a database was made available on PHMC's website. Marker program staff reviewed each marker text and assigned it to one or more categories so that users could locate the marker texts more quickly. Markers could also be searched by county and, more recently, by keyword. Now GPS coordinates are provided for those who prefer to use that technology to locate their history.

In 2001 the marker program entered into a partnership with public media organization witf, located in South Central Pennsylvania. Along with other partners, including state agencies, public radio and television stations, and educational and historical organizations, ExplorePAhistory.com was created. Nearly 1,000 marker texts were chosen for their broad expanse of topics. Each is accompanied by background material placing the text into an expanded story. Photographs were gathered through many sources - from major museums to individual collectors - and lesson plans for teachers and many links for further research were provided.

ExplorePAhistory.com is the result of a massive effort to compile the stories behind each marker featured on the site. These stories were written by PHMC's historians, museum curators, historic site administrators and educators, as well as professionals from other educational and historical organizations. This wealth of background and context brings Pennsylvania's history into focus. Michael Williams, project manager for the site, says that about 50,000 visitors spend time on the site each month. Beginning with only six "themes" (Native Americans, William Penn, religion and so forth), the site now offers 34. For each theme, lesson plans have been written for elementary, middle school and high school levels by teachers from around the state. These plans are aligned with the Pennsylvania Department of Education's teaching standards.

More recently witf has created a PA Markers app for mobile devices. One can search for a marker by name or set the app to show all the markers within a set distance from the phone. Users can see the marker text and then read the full story behind that marker, complete with images and links to other related markers. PA Markers even offers additional resources for further study. PHMC has its own mobile website enabling tourists and enthusiasts to locate markers within a short driving distance of their location.

Another way to express marker-hunting pride is the popular I Brake for Pennsylvania Markers magnet available for purchase at ShopPAHeritage.

Not officially related to PHMC or the marker program are several websites useful to those who love to search out markers. Waymarking.com is a site devoted to providing a means for users to show and share sites of all sorts throughout the world. Among the many categories is that of Pennsylvania historical markers. Working in the site's "history department," users can find a listing of markers worldwide, then hone in on American markers, and finally choose Pennsylvania markers. Most entries include a photograph of the plaque or marker, sometimes accompanied by pictures of the place commemorated, and often a "selfie," proving that the submitter actually visited the marker.

The Historical Marker Database (HMdb.org) went online in 2006 and bills itself as "bite-size bits of local, national, and global history." It contains a searchable database of outdoor markers, plaques and monuments in the United States and in 41 foreign countries, totaling more than 65,000 markers. There is a forum for discussions and many links to other marker sites, including PHMC's. Volunteer correspondents, currently numbering more than 3,400, may add new markers and corroborating information on existing ones.

Mike Wintermantel of Pittsburgh is one of 23 contributing editors to HMdb.org. He and his wife like to travel around the state, taking the road less traveled. Sometimes they are in search of a specific marker but are just happy to come across one they have never seen before. Whatever the case, like plaque-readers of old, they stop the car, get out and take photos of the marker site and its environment.

Mike catalogs his photos by county and submits them and other information to the Historical Marker Database. He also shares them with PHMC's Historical Marker Program staff. "I like sharing what I have found so that everyone, not just Pennsylvanians, but people from around the world, can discover our history, whether it be a minor conflict, a major event or a notable person," Mike says.

Markers on the Historical Marker Database have been viewed more than 44 million times. There are other sites, too, like the cleverly named Markeroni.com, "the gentle art of landmark-snarfing."

From metal plaques mounted on boulders to "history on a stick" and now history in a handheld device, the Historical Marker Program is, after 100 years, still among the most popular and enduring public history endeavors in the nation.


The Box to the Rescue

Author John K. Robinson loves to travel the highways in search of history in his cool Scion xB that he affectionately calls "The Box." While he was working on this article he discovered that the very first of the new-style markers - Hanover Resolves along U.S. Route 22 in East Hanover Township, dedicated in 1946 - was out of commission. The marker's frame was broken and the text plate had fallen into the grass along the berm of the road. John was unable to find the section that had broken off the frame, but he hoisted the plate into The Box and reported it to Historical Marker Program Coordinator Karen Galle, who sent a crew to John's house to retrieve the marker, take it to their shop for refurbishment and return it to the spot where it had stood for 68 years. If you spot a damaged or missing marker, please email Karen Galle or call 717-705-4266.


Visit the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program website to learn more about the program.


John K. Robinson lives in Linglestown, Dauphin County, and is president of the Historical Society of Dauphin County in Harrisburg. In addition to serving in the past as coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, he was also historic site administrator and press secretary for PHMC and internal communications manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.


Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC's Bureau for Historic Preservation and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005. Previously she worked for 10 years in the agency's former Commonwealth Conservation Center. Karen regularly writes the Marking Time column for Pennsylvania Heritage.