By Mark I. West
October 16, 2021
Fans of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs might remember the 1971 hit “Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign” by the Five Man Electrical Band. As this song suggests, signs communicate much more than the simple words emblazoned on the surface. The signs featured in the song have negative and exclusionary subtexts, 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 from beloved but now closed Charlotte eateries, including the Old Hickory House Restaurant, The Penguin, and Art’s BBQ & Deli, are part of the exhibit. These were all places where people gathered to enjoy a meal together.
The exhibit also includes signs from a number of important Charlotte businesses, such as Eastland Mall, Peeler’s Portrait Studio, Oakhurst Flowers and Fruits, and the Dilworth Food Market. These businesses once served a wide range of Charlotte customers and contributed to the vitality of neighborhoods where they were located. The signs serve as tangible reminders of roles that these businesses played in the history of Charlotte.
One of the largest items featured is the letter “J” from the landmark JFG Coffee sign that once towered over John Belk Freeway, although the other letters are too big to fit inside the museum. However, the exhibit does include the giant letter “E” from the Coliseum Center sign, which could be seen from Independence Boulevard for many years.
Not all of the signs are large. One, for example, is a small hand-painted sign from a now demolished parking deck associated with the Knight Publishing Company, the former publisher of The Charlotte Observer. Because of weathering, the sign painter’s brush strokes are now more visible than when it was freshly painted. Such small signs may not be iconic landmarks, but they add nuance to the exhibit.
The person responsible for preserving 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 History Told Through the Queen City’s Classic Roadside Signage. He curated the exhibit, created informational cards to accompany the displays, and even included some of his own photography.
Charlotte: Signs of Home can be traced back to a conversation that Lauren Wallace (the museum’s development director) had with Lawing last year. In a recent interview she said, “I reached out to Christopher and invited him to do a lunch-and-learn program about Charlotte signs. He agreed, and the program was a big hit. After the program, we talked about creating an exhibit, and the idea took off from there.”
For his part, Lawing is thrilled to share his passion for Charlotte signs with the public. “I think of these signs as being part of our Charlotte community,” he said. “They speak to me, but I think they speak to everyone who lives in Charlotte. My goal in saving these signs is to preserve and celebrate the history of our community. I am so pleased to bring these signs back so that people can see them in person.”
The Charlotte: Signs of Home exhibit officially opens to the public on October 16 at Charlotte Museum of History and you can tour the exhibit every Saturday. Visitors who want to know more about the history of Charlotte’s signs should also check out Christopher Lawing’s book Charlotte: The Signs of the Times– A History Told Through the Queen City’s Classic Roadside Signage, which is coming back into print in November.
Learn more about the Charlotte: Signs of Home exhibit now open every Saturday at Charlotte Museum of History.
Mark I. West is a professor of English at UNC Charlotte. He also writes Storied Charlotte, a weekly blog that celebrates Charlotte’s community of readers and writers.
In this article
- A History Told Through the Queen City’s Classic Roadside Signage
- Art’s BBQ & Deli
- charlotte history
- Charlotte Signs Project
- Charlotte: Signs of Home
- Christopher Lawing
- Christopher S. Lawing
- Coliseum Center
- Dilworth Food Market
- eastland mall
- Independence Boulevard
- JFG Coffee
- John Belk Freeway
- Lauren Wallace
- Mark I. West
- Oakhurst Flowers
- Old Hickory House Restaurant
- Peeler’s Portrait Studio
- the penguin
- The Signs of the Times