I don’t remember lawn signs from my childhood. There were bumper stickers and pin-back buttons, like the WIN buttons in the 1970s. (WIN stood for “Whip Inflation Now.”)
But I don’t recall signs. Now it seems like they’re everywhere.
I’m not talking about signs that contractors put in front of houses or more permanent things like peace poles. And I’m not talking about signs for individual candidates, which will propagate before the election in November.
I’m referring to the corrugated plastic signs that highlight everything from college choices to social issues.
It’s funny, in this digital age, that such an analog form of communication has surged in popularity.
I’m guessing this is partly due to the pandemic. When life went remote, our homes became our focal points. In addition to enhancing them with light strings, we made them display cases for our lives.
In mid-July, on a walk in my neighborhood, I paid attention to all the signs I saw – from “Hate has no home here” to “Marquette Bound” – and I wondered if I could learn more about this phenomenon.
By Googling, I discovered you can get free downloads of many social justice signs. You can also buy them on Amazon and Etsy, among other places.
The Evanston Township High School Booster Club sells the lawn signs that acknowledge students involved in sports and other extracurricular activities. And a friend who works in education told me that many schools, including colleges, use lawn signs as marketing tools.
I also scoured the internet for research on lawn signs, which led me to Anand Sokhey, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of the book Politics on Display: Yard Signs and the Politicization of Social Spaces.
When I asked him about the proliferation of lawn signs, he said they “break through” in this digital age.
“You can avoid social media if you want, but you can’t avoid someone’s lawn sign,” he said. “It’s a powerful and confrontational act to display a sign.”
Sokhey also said lawn signs may be an outgrowth of meme culture. “Memes are simply digital images with words,” he said. “I’m speculating here, but, in a sense, lawn signs are that same expressive device, just in a physical way.”
When I told him Evanston has a lot of lawn signs, he said, “It communicates to me that people there are active, informed and politically engaged.”
But what are the specific signs in Evanston? Are some more popular than others? There was no way to know unless I did my own research – by driving around.
I spent several hours over the span of three days winding my way from Howard Street to Isabella Street, from McCormick Boulevard to Sheridan Road, and all the streets in between. I didn’t look at commercial or institutional buildings, only residences, including multi-unit structures.
My research was completely unscientific, but here’s what I discovered:
- School affiliation signs are the most ubiquitous lawn signs in Evanston. Most I saw were related to Evanston Township High School: graduation signs and the sports/activity signs sold by the boosters. I also saw signs for Evanston/Skokie District 65 schools and local private schools.
- The second most popular lawn sign in Evanston is Black Lives Matter.
- The third most popular is “In this house, we believe. . .” or variations of that sign.
Although it may not always seem like it, my takeaway is that Evanston is a unified place. While there were a few signs I hadn’t seen before, the overwhelming majority were these three types.
I did some informal polling and found that few people object to showcasing kids, as the school signs do, particularly after the isolation and cancellations due to COVID. But some people I spoke with have mixed feelings about social justice signs, referring to them as “performative allyship” (when displayed by whites) and virtue signaling.
I don’t see it that way. Maybe my bar is low, but any kind of allyship and any allusion to virtue seem better than ignorance and inhumanity. I also wonder if people are desperate to be heard right now and signs fulfill that need.
Powerful? Performative? It’s impossible to know each individual reason for displaying a sign. All I can say is that when I drove around Evanston, I was reminded that, despite our problems, we’re on the same page, at least according to our front yards.