Commemorative plaques, in some form or another, have existed for hundreds of years. In Europe the earliest form of plaques were thin pieces of brass mounted on walls called Monumental brass. They usually depicted a scene or person of historical significance. They started to emerge in the early 13th century, as they took up less space than their three-dimensional counterparts.
However, their value to scrap dealers meant they were constantly being stolen and recycled. France lost all their plaques during the French Revolution when the military was in desperate need of metal. The Victorian Era saw a reemergence of their popularity. Later in the 19th century more people were able to read, and more historical plaques, with writing, started to emerge in the UK as well as around the world. Here are some of the more… unusual… plaques from around the world.
10. One Small Step for Bill Murray
Google Map Location: 135 Cass St, Woodstock, Illinois
Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day was released on February 12, 1993. At the time, it was well received by critics and audiences alike, pulling in $71 million ($119 million in 2018) at the box office. Desson Howe of the Washington Post was quoted as saying that it would “never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress,” which… well, we’ll get to that in a second. Over time the movie has become a classic and enjoys a 96% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In 2006 it was even selected by the National Film Preservation Board for entry into the Library of Congress, causing the esteemed Mr. Howe to eat his words.
The film became so big that it started to bring tourists to the town of Woodstock, Illinois (where it was filmed) to visit the movie’s iconic locations. In the movie, Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is stuck in a time loop where he repeats the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over. To illustrate this in the film there is a visual loop where every day Phil is stuck in time he wakes up at 6:00 a.m. to a radio alarm clock blaring “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. He then has breakfast, meets an old “friend” on the street, and then steps in a puddle. At the exact place where Bill Murray’s character steps in the puddle, film fan Chuck Peterson and his family commissioned a plaque that eternally marks his mistakenly soaked foot.
9. Namer of Clouds
Google Map Location: 116 Bruce Grove London, England
In 1866, London politician William Ewart decided to start a program of marking the houses of famous people who had historically lived in London. This would evolve into London’s blue plaque program. In 2016, the 150th anniversary of the blue plaque program, there were over 900 plaques around the city. In recent times each plaque has been sculpted by Frank and Sue Ashworth, who hand make each one.
One of these plaques stands at 116 Bruce Grove London, England and simply reads “Luke Howard / Namer of Clouds / lived and died here.” Mr Howard was an amateur meteorologist who, in 1802, presented a paper to the Askesian Society called “The Modifications of Clouds.” It was a proposed naming scheme for clouds. At the time other cloud naming systems existed but his method prevailed because it used the universal language of Latin, and so now we use terms like cirrus, stratus, and cumulus to describe clouds.
8. Maltese Falcon Alleyway
Google Map Location: 98 Burritt St, San Francisco, California
In 1930, Dashiell Hammett released the iconic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. The novel was a huge success. Its main character, Samuel “Sam” Spade, crystallized the trope of the quiet, cold, detached private detective who has seen it all. It’s ranked 54th on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best novels. In 1941 it was made into a famous movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Gladys George. In his book, venerated critic Robert Ebert mentioned it as one the 383 films he classifies as “Great Movies.” It is also the source of famed quotes like “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it” and “The stuff that dreams are made of.”
At 98 Burritt St, in San Francisco, California is one of the only plaques to have spoilers, so stop reading if you want to read the book or watch the movie. The plot has a mystery narrative arc on who murdered Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer. At the end of the story Spade figures out that his love interest Brigid O’Shaughnessy was the murderer the whole time. So in Burritt Alley in San Francisco, the plaque reads: “On approximately this spot, Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy.”
7. Bummer and Lazarus
Google Map Location: Transamerica Redwood Park, next to the Transamerica Pyramid
In the 19th century throughout America, packs of stray dogs were a real danger on city streets. San Francisco was no different and there were teams of dog catchers that would catch and kill what were viewed as pests. In 1860 one such dog, Bummer, a black and white Newfoundland, carved out a patch of territory along Montgomery Street. There he begged for scraps and gained the love of locals for being a fierce rat killer, as rats spread disease and ate up market goods.
On January 18, 1861 the city paper, the Daily Evening Bulletin, reported how Bummer had saved another dog, Lazarus, from a fight with another, bigger canine. Bummer nursed his friend back to health and the Daily Evening Bulletin continued to report on their impressive rat-killing frenzies and other antics. The two became so beloved that when a new dog catcher rounded up the pair an angry mob of local residents ran him down and released the dogs.
Lazarus lived until October 1863 and his death is listed as being from various causes, while his partner Bummer lived until 1865, when he died of injuries from being kicked down the stairs. The kicker, Henry “Ripper” Rippey, was arrested for his own protection after a mob set out to get justice for the old rat hound. In Transamerica Redwood Park, next to the Transamerica Pyramid, a plaque now stands commemorating the adventures of the two beloved strays.
6. Ford’s Elevator
Google Map Location: Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania
Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. was born on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska and during World War II he served on the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, which was fighting the Japanese. After the war he became a politician and entered the US House of Representatives for Michigan’s 5th district on January 3, 1949. He served the party well and in 1973 when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, he was chosen to become Richard Nixon’s new Veep. Then when Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal, Ford became the 38th President of the United States, serving in that capacity from August 1974 to January 1977. His 895 days in power make his term the shortest of any president who didn’t die in office. He also has the distinction of being the only man to become Vice President and President without being elected for either office.
After a large number of slips and falls while in office Ford developed a reputation for clumsiness and embarrassing incidents. Nothing encapsulates this like when, on September 19, 1984, barely 10 years out of office, Ford was temporarily trapped in an elevator. While attending a ceremony for a new section of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania Ford became stuck in the elevator somewhere between the basement and the first floor. His security detail went to DEFCON 4 while university staff scrambled to find help. An elevator repairman was quickly summoned and was eventually able to recover Ford. To commemorate the event, there is now a plaque marking the incident.
5. White Saved This Green From Goths
Google Map Location: Donnington, Oxfordshire
From the 18th century to the 19th century, architecture shifted from neoclassical to more Romantic styles that drew heavily from Gothic Revival architecture. Construction and design of this period borrowed heavily from the Medieval ages. There was also a movement to utilize open space to its maximum, which often meant buildings that eliminated their green space or public parks being turned over to agriculture.
This plaque that reads, “To the memory of the Rev. Herbert White / who saved this green from Goths and Utilitarians / 1853,” referencing a man named Herbert White, who… well, as you probably guessed, saved this green area in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom from the Gothic architecture and push to utilize all open areas into some kind of official function.
4. Barack and Michelle Obama’s First Kiss
Google Map Location: corner of Dorchester Avenue and 53rd Street, Chicago
Former President’s Barack Obama’s rise as a politician from Chicago is well documented. Also celebrated has been the seemingly loving marriage between Barack and Michelle Obama. Obama first saw Michelle when he was a Harvard law student who landed a job as a summer associate in the law firm where Michelle was working as an attorney. After some convincing, he landed a date and took her to the Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop in Hyde Park. Since the 1989 date, the Baskin-Robbins has changed to a Subway. Believe it or not, the events of that first date were turned into a movie in 2016.
In a 2007 interview, Obama said, “On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.” These words have now been inscribed into stone at the corner of Dorchester Avenue and 53rd Street.
3. Studio 229
Google Map Location: Sierra Madre dormitory, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly)
Legendary parody singer-songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic had his first comedy song aired on the radio in 1976. Over multiple decades, he has released 14 studio albums and 54 music videos. His career has often eclipsed the artists that he spoofs. As if you couldn’t tell from how clever his work is, he’s also ridiculously smart. He was his high school’s valedictorian, and entered the California Polytechnic State University when he was just 16-years-old.
There, he started a music group and volunteered as a DJ on KCPR radio, a student-organized station at Cal Poly. While DJing during the summer of 1979 he became inundated with requests for “My Sharona” by The Knack. Inspired, he wrote the parody “My Bologna.” Well received at his live shows, he decided to record in the so-called Studio 229, a perfectly acoustic bathroom in his Sierra Madre dormitory at Cal Poly. The resulting single went on to sell 10,000 copies. In 2017 Weird Al tweeted a picture of the university putting up a plaque to commemorate the restroom where all the magic started.
Not wanting to be left out of the fun, another university, Rogers State, dedicated a supply closet to Yankovic, the winner of three Grammy awards. Weird Al was quoted as saying that “this is probably the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon me.”
2. Doreen Valiente
Google Map Location: Tyson Place, Grosvenor Street, Brighton, England
Druidism and other pagan rituals have a long history in the United Kingdom, as indicated by the (approximately) 5,000-year-old Stonehenge. After the rise of Christianity, blasphemy laws often severely punished practitioners of the ancient arts. By modern times most pagan rituals had been wiped from England’s cultural landscape, but then along came Doreen Valiente.
The mother of modern witchcraft, Valiente was born in 1922 and raised as a Christian. In the ’50s she came across a book called The Book of Shadows, which she rewrote to become the source of the rituals of Wicca, or modern witchcraft. The movement’s core beliefs are a “love of nature, animals and the beauty of the trees … Modern day witches focus on healing and helping people, by channelling their thoughts and energy.” It is now one of the fastest growing religions in the world. On June 21, 2013, the summer solstice, a plaque dedicated to Valiente, who died in 1999, was unveiled at Tyson Place, Grosvenor Street.
1. Elvis breaks up a fight
Google Map Location: 3608 E Washington Ave, Madison, Wisconsin
On June 24, 1977, just 52 days before his tragic death, music legend Elvis Presley was driving to Madison from the city’s airport in Wisconsin. Sitting in his limo at a red light, he noticed two locals about to start a fight. Elvis, with no fear for his own safety and an avowed practitioner of the martial arts, slammed open the limo door and rushed to separate the two combatants.
Upon recognizing the King, the two fighters quickly dropped their fists. With peace restored he shook their hands, and those of other stunned onlookers, before returning to his limo. To commemorate the event, next to a parking lot of Madison’s Schoepp Motors lies a plaque at 3608 E Washington Ave, Madison, Wisconsin detailing the surreal incident with arguably the most iconic American musician in history.