Establishing A Plaque Program

Overview

Local and state historical societies almost always are searching for new and innovative ways to enhance the historical awareness of members of their communities. Plaque programs provide one of the most effective and least expensive ways of bringing history “to the streets.” A plaque program, organized and administered by a historical society, involves the recognition and landmarking of local historic properties through the use of plaques typically purchased by the owners of these properties. In recent years, an increasing number of historical societies have established such programs, often as a means of enhancing community outreach and historical awareness.

Program Start-Up

In establishing a plaque program a historical society must: a) determine the goals and objectives of the program; b) select the type of program most likely to permit the fulfillment of these objectives; and c) set the criteria for inclusion in the plaque program.

Establishing Program Goals and Objectives

Historical societies tend to organize plaque programs for any number of reasons, but most typically, these reasons include:

  • Membership. Plaque programs allow a historical society a means by which it can expand its outreach and membership. For building and home owners who may not be members of or active in a historical society but who are, nevertheless, interested in local history and historic preservation, participation in a plaque program often serves as the first step toward more active involvement.
  • Education. Marking a substantial number of buildings in a given district or a neighborhood provides a graphic image of the history of that area. As such, the historical society may find itself better able to bring history directly to those it was previously unable to reach – uninvolved residents, visitors, or tourists.
  • Preservation and Rehabilitation. Although a plaque program itself does not necessarily imply the recognition of buildings as historic sites, the guide- lines by which a building is accepted into the pro- gram may serve to encourage building owners to rehabilitate and maintain their historic structures.
  • Fund Raising. A plaque program has the potential to be a fund raiser for the sponsoring organization. Some dealers are even wishing to sell plaques to historical societies at wholesale prices. The historical society may, in turn, either pass these discounts on to the building owner or use the discount for their own fund raising purposes.
  • Certainly, these are not the only reasons historical societies establish plaque programs. Whatever the reason, it is crucial that the objectives of the program be established ahead of time and that there be a consensus reached on the objectives. Ideally, the form which the program takes should be dependent entirely upon the goals selected.
Selecting Appropriate Program Form

In determining the type of program able to meet the objectives set out for it, the historical society must make two basic decisions. First, on the basis of the program objectives, the historical society must choose between two overall types of programs, interpretive and recognition. An interpretive program involves the landmarking of historic sites using markers with customized wording describing the specific structure or district. For example, as shown in Fig. 1, such plaques may provide a bit of the history of a specific site. If the primary program objective is community education, this type of program would be most appropriate. Furthermore, a plaque program of this sort can be used as a basis for a walking tour.

Roadside markers are a special type of interpretive markers. Larger (and more expensive) than the usual interpretive plaque, roadside markers permit the communication of more detailed information. Typically, these are mounted on a post adjacent to the historic site, unlike plaques, which are mounted on the wall of a building.

If the objective of the program is either outreach and membership or preservation and rehabilitation, a recognition program may be more suitable. Recognition plaques also tend to be less expensive since they have little or no customized wording. The National Register plaque used for recognition, usually is inscribed with the following wording: ‘This property has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.” A more sophisticated (and expensive) plaque includes the name of the building, restorer, construction date, or reference number (such as indicating a description in a guide book) printed either below or above the standard wording.

Secondly, the historical society must decide whether or not it wants a consistent plaque format or whether the selection of the format will be left, up to the individual purchaser, If one of the objectives of the program is to increase community awareness of the activities of the historical society, then it may be important that all plaques ordered through the program are of a consistent format. Typically, it is in the historical society’s interest to ensure that, regardless of whether the program is of the interpretive or recognition type, all plaques have some sort of logo or the name of the historical society placed at the top or bottom of each plaque. Some historical societies, however, go beyond this and determine exact plaque specifications, i.e., the material used, shape of the plaques, and wording permitted.

For the historical society adopting a program with a set plaque format, i.e., with more than just the name of the historical society at the top or bottom, there are a number of alternatives regarding the manner in which the plaque is fabricated and its shape and size:

Mode of Fabrication: Plaques are fabricated in several ways: metal casting, or metal photo processing.

  • Metal Casting: Plaques fabricated in this method are usually made from either bronze, aluminum, or iron. All three must be cast in a foundry; however, not all foundries are alike. Depending on the equipment and casting process used by a foundry, the price of a cast plaque can vary greatly. Furthermore, there are advantages and disadvantages for each type of material. Aluminum, while typically priced in the middle range, looks less expensive and may corrode over time. Bronze, while the most expensive, looks more dignified and lasts longer.
  • Metal Processing: Plaques processed onto metal, as opposed to plaques cast out of metal, are the least expensive. For the historical society considering this mode of fabrication, there are two choices, metal photo and screen processing. In the case of the former, text and photograph are embedded in photosensitized aluminum. In the case of the latter, text and photo are essentially painted onto the surface of the metal. Metal photo offers a number of advantages since it is the least expensive to produce and provides the clearest image reproduction, which is ideal if the historical society wishes to incorporate into the plaque an old fashioned-looking, tintype photo of a structure that once stood on a site. However, these plaques can be damaged if vandals use a sharp object, and they can only be reproduced in a limited number of colors (silver and black) when used outdoors.
  • Shape and Size: Depending upon the type of plaque (cast metal, photo processed metal) desired, historical societies should be able to find a manufacturer able to provide a plaque of nearly any shape or size. Clearly, the price of the plaque depends to a great extent upon the size ordered. With respect to plaque shapes, while historical societies using processed metal usually are limited to a square or rectangular shape, in theory, no such limitations exist with respect to processed wood or cast metal. A number of mass-produced standard shapes, suitable for historic sites – squares, rectangles, ovals, and “colonials” – are available primarily through local sign shops. Finally, cast metal plaques can be made in virtually any shape since they are cast from reusable patterns. However, the more complex the shape, the more difficult to finish the edges of the plaque and, thus, the higher the price. While these steps may make the process of setting up the program seem quite complex, most plaque producers will be able to provide advice and assistance, hence greatly simplifying the decision-making process.
Running Stage

In actually implementing a plaque program a historical society must: a) publicize the program; and b) set up an application, selection, and order processing system. Each of these steps is described in more detail below.

Publicizing the Program

In general, a plaque program is, over a period of years, self-promoting in that as plaques are placed, they generate public interest, often becoming a “tradition” in themselves. The methods for publicizing a plaque program, to a large degree, are dependent upon the goals of the programs. For groups whose objective is to recognize and to coordinate restoration activities by its members, publicity can be accomplished through internal organizational communications, e.g., newsletters and meetings.

For groups using the program as a fund raiser, to stimulate community awareness or to create a walking tour, a minimal amount of promotional work is desirable and not difficult to accomplish. Often historical societies try to publicize their plaque programs using the local media, such as community newspapers and radio. Such publicity efforts may be facilitated greatly if the historical society already has mounted one or two plaques on well-known properties. A second method by which the historical society may accomplish its publicity objectives is through the use of direct mail. A simple direct mail flyer addressed to owners of historic properties often incorporates a photo of a typical plaque, an order form for a plaque, and in some cases, an application form (see section on program participation and participant selection below). Annual or semi-annual award dinners or events may be used to publicize a program recognizing significant restoration efforts in the community.

Establishing Application, Selection, and Ordering System

Eligibility criteria for program participation allow the historical society to influence and to direct community norms regarding the proper care and maintenance of historic properties. Examples of such criteria are: a) age of the structure; b) inclusion on a historic properties survey; and c) rehabilitation technique, i.e., the degree to which architectural integrity guidelines are followed. The type of application process used by the historical society depends on the nature of the criteria established for program participation. That is, those plaque programs for which stringent eligibility criteria exist are likely to have a more detailed application process than those with few criteria.

Application forms often accompany program publicity materials distributed by the historical society to potential participants. In situations in which information about all properties that might be included in the program are readily available to the historical society, such as properties listed on the National Register, the application form need only request such basic information as the name and address of the property, name and address of property owner, and date on which the property was placed on the Register or recorded in local historical records. In those cases in which such information is not readily available or in which the eligibility criteria set by the historical society demand further information (for instance, the source of information pertaining to historical significance of the property, listing of structural changes to property, the application form should incorporate questions pertaining to these issues. Of course, it is in the historical society’s interest to keep its requests for information realistic and the application form as simple as possible. In many cases the application form doubles as an order form. That is, rather than processing the application and then beginning the ordering process, the historical society requires payment and shipping information on some portion of the application form. The nature of the ordering process itself depends on the system worked out between the historical society and the plaque supplier. Some suppliers will request that all plaque orders be processed centrally and that plaques be shipped to the historical society. In such cases, the historical society processes all payments and is made responsible for the final distribution of the plaques. In other cases, the supplier may be willing to accept orders directly from individual participants (using the historical society’s order form), and ship directly to the participant. Delivery times vary greatly among suppliers, ranging from two weeks to three months; therefore, it is recommended strongly that plaques to be presented at some special event be ordered well in advance.

Other Issues

Legal Restrictions: There are no federal regulations governing the placing of historical markers although there is a common misconception that properties listed on the National Register should be marked with a uniform text. In fact, nothing seems to mandate this text other than tradition. Local and state regulations may cover the placing of roadside markers and larger, free-standing plaques that may in some fashion disrupt the smooth flow of traffic on roadways.

Mounting (and the problems of theft): One of the questions that most frequently arises concerns the danger of theft or vandalism. Surprisingly, it is often the smaller, less urban communities that suffer from this problem. To some extent, the type of plaque (material) influences the frequency and type of damage that may occur. Should theft be a concern, the two best precautions are placing the plaque in a location that makes it difficult to be reached and using commercially available epoxies to adhere the plaque, making it extremely resistant to removal. Plaques are either front mounted (holes drilled through the front of the plaque and screwed into anchors placed in the mounting surface) or rear mounted (studs on the back of the plaque that are pushed into holes drilled in the mounting surface). By filling the drilled holes with epoxy, the screw or stud virtually is irremovable.

Historic Building Surveys and Plaque Programs: Some historical societies have ongoing research programs investigating the historical value of local buildings and structures. For such historical societies, one option to consider is the incorporation of a plaque program into these ongoing research efforts. There are two advantages for tying these programs together. First, a plaque program can help cover research expenses, giving the building owner the feeling that they are getting a tangible product in return for their donation. A second advantage is that a building owner’s awareness of the historical society’s ongoing research efforts is increased.

Conclusion

As historical societies continue to enhance their efforts to inform community members about the historic importance of their neighborhoods, it is likely that, in the future, an increasing number will be considering plaque programs as highly visible, administratively simple, cost-effective approaches to community education and historic preservation. Plaque programs offer the leadership of historical societies an innovative way to make local history accessible to all members of the community. Besides enhancing the educational goals of historical societies, such programs often facilitate the meeting of other group objectives such as membership expansion, community rehabilitation, and fund raising. While this leaflet provides specific steps leading to the planning and implementation of a successful plaque program, additional information may be obtained from historical societies with plaque program experience or from suppliers specializing in historic landmarks.