Signs of Their Times: Signs of the Hereafter

Two previous posts in this series have focused on billboards promoting the “American Way” and signs enforcing racial segregation.

Having been raised in the Deep South, I was accustomed to seeing religious signs during travels by car or pickup truck. Some signs bore succinct messages while others were far more word-filled, requiring a pullover to “take them in.” No road, whether asphalt, gravel, or dirt, was too rural, too remote, to happen upon them. I assumed they were endemic to the South but confined to the region. In locating religion-themed signs in the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Collection, I uncovered photographic confirmation of their presence as geographically far-flung as Idaho and Minnesota in the years of the Depression era.

While some religious signs are made of sturdy materials with crisp professional lettering, I am drawn to the handmade variety such as pictured (below, left) in the yard and attached to the Minneapolis front porch and the legible detail of one section on the right:

Religious signs, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photograph by John Vachon, Sept. 1939.

Religious signs, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photograph by John Vachon, Sept 1939. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a04746

Religious signs, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photograph by John Vachon, Sept. 1939.

Religious signs, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photograph by John Vachon, Sept 1939. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a04745

As seen above in Minnesota, the creators of religious signs often filled all available surface space. In contrast, the sign in the West Virginia cornfield (below) concisely exhorts passers-by to “Prepare to Meet God.” It points toward the heavens but may have been annually obscured as the corn grew tall:

A religious sign in a cornfield, Williamson, West Virginia. Photograph by Ben Shahn, Oct 1935.

A religious sign in a cornfield, Williamson, West Virginia. Photograph by Ben Shahn, Oct 1935. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8a16938

The two photographs below combine faith-based themes with messages based on then-current issues such as land reclamation (left) and warnings against joining the war in Europe (right):

Sign on ranch in Canyon County, Idaho. Photograph by Russell Lee, May 1941.

Sign on ranch in Canyon County, Idaho. Photograph by Russell Lee, May 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c01314

Religious sign on highway between Columbus and Augusta, Georgia. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, Dec 1940.

Religious sign on highway between Columbus and Augusta, Georgia. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, Dec 1940. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c14227

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