Working in the museum’s Collections Department has given me the chance to encounter some very interesting artifacts. The same can be said for my work as the Archivist for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Buffalo. I never thought to contemplate what kinds of similar things exist in both places until the idea was presented to me. In looking back at everything I have worked on over the years, I realized that one type of object I had come across quite a few times were signs. It’s a funny thing to think about what a sign can really mean to a place, people, and/ or time in history. When I see a sign on a building, or on the side of a road, I don’t really think deeply about its significance. But when a sign is viewed outside of its original location, or out of context, it almost forces you to think about where it came from and its significance. Some of my most interesting research has been done because of signs.
One of the first signs I worked on at the museum was one made by a member of the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI. For history buffs like myself, researching information about important historical periods, like WWI, is usually something to look forward to because more times than not you come out knowing so much more than you knew before you started.
For example, “TO BERLIN”: I knew before starting my research that it was originally hung in a town in France called Thiaucourt. What I discovered was that the town was involved in a major battle of the war, the St. Mihiel Offensive, which was led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing in September 1918. This action during the war was particularly significant because it was the first large-scale offensive action that was taken by American forces independent of the Allies. It never ceases to amaze me when I see objects like this sign which have withstood the destructive violence of war and yet find their way to places thousands of miles away. I only wish that we knew more about the man (or men) who made that journey happen.
In a city like Buffalo, there is a lot of history to look back on and reminisce about. There have been a lot of events, neighborhoods, people, and buildings that have made the city what it is. Once in a while those things come back into the spotlight and being able to look at artifacts from the past makes for an interesting comparison to the present. One area of the city that has been in the headlines for many years is the Webster Block.
It was a timely thing, then, when I came across two street markers from the corner of Main and Perry Streets during the time the sale to the Sabres was happening. These marble street signs were actually incorporated into the exterior of a building that sat at that corner in 1838. They were chiseled from the sides of the building at an unknown time and eventually donated to the History Museum in 1969. Not having known much about the Webster Block before working on these signs, I was unaware that part of it was located at this intersection and in doing my research, I was even more surprised to find that it had been built up all the way back in 1835 by a prominent figure in Buffalo history, Benjamin Rathbun. Just because of these two signs, I learned some very interesting information about the city I’ve lived in my whole life that I had never even thought to ponder.
It’s amazing what a sign can show you!