By Mark I. West
October 16, 2021
Fans of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs may remember the 1971 hit “Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign” by the Five Man Electrical Band. As this song suggests, signs communicate much more than just the words etched on the surface. The signs featured in the song have negative and exclusive subtext, but the iconic signs featured in the Charlotte Museum of History’s new exhibit Charlotte: Signs of Home evoke memories of shared experiences and special places.
Signs of beloved but now closed Charlotte restaurants, including Old Hickory House, The Penguin, and Art’s BBQ & Deli, are part of the exhibit. These were all places where people gathered to have a meal together.
The exhibit also features panels from a number of major Charlotte businesses, such as Eastland Mall, Peeler’s Portrait Studio, Oakhurst Flowers and Fruits, and the Dilworth Food Market. These businesses once served a large Charlotte clientele and contributed to the vitality of the neighborhoods in which they were located. The signs serve as tangible reminders of the roles these companies have played in Charlotte’s history.
One of the larger objects on display is the letter “J” from the JFG Coffee sign that once dominated the John Belk Expressway, although the other letters are too large to fit inside the museum. However, the exhibit includes the giant letter “E” from the Coliseum Center sign, which could be seen from Independence Boulevard for many years.
Not all panels are large. One, for example, is a small hand-painted sign from a now demolished parking lot associated with the Knight Publishing Company, the former publisher of Charlotte’s Observer. Due to inclement weather, the sign painter’s brushstrokes are now more noticeable than when he was freshly painted. These little panels might not be iconic landmarks, but they add nuance to the exhibit.
The person responsible for the preservation of these historic signs is Christopher S. Lawing, the founder of the Charlotte Signs Project and the author of the book Charlotte: The Signs of the Times – A Story Told Through Classic Queen City Road Signs. He organized the exhibit, created information cards to accompany the exhibits, and even included some of his own photographs.
Charlotte: Signs of Home dates back to a conversation Lauren Wallace (museum development director) had with Lawing last year. In a recent interview, she said: âI reached out to Christopher and invited him to do a lunch and learn Charlotte signs program. He accepted and the program was a great success. After the program, we talked about creating an exhibition, and the idea came from there.
For his part, Lawing is delighted to share his passion for the Charlotte brands with the public. âI think these signs are part of our Charlotte community,â he said. âThey talk to me, but I think they talk to everyone who lives in Charlotte. My goal in saving these signs is to preserve and celebrate the history of our community. I’m so happy to bring these signs back so people can see them in person. ”
The Charlotte: Signs of Home exhibition officially opens to the public on October 16, 2021 at the Charlotte Museum of History. Visitors can visit the exhibition every Saturday. Visitors wishing to learn more about the history of the Charlotte Signs should also check out Christopher Lawing’s book Charlotte: The Signs of the Times – A Story Told Through Classic Queen City Road Signs, which returns to press in November.
Learn more about the Charlotte: The Signs of Home exhibit is now open every Saturday at the Charlotte Museum of History.
Mark I. West is an English teacher at UNC Charlotte. He also writes Storied Charlotte, a weekly blog that celebrates Charlotte’s community of readers and writers.
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