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A Sign of the Times

"Sunny Dispawsition" quarterboard

Cape & Islands artisans keep the tradition of quarterboards alive

Photos courtesy of Dan Driscoll

Once used to identify sailing ships, quarterboards have evolved into a distinctive form of home décor that recalls Cape Cod’s seafaring heritage. Today these ornamental signs are most often found above the main entrance to a home or garage, with lettering that spells the family name or a clever slogan. Decorative carved end pieces—such as scallop shells, pineapples or whales—complete the custom look.

After the War of 1812, many privateers became pirates, explains Paul McCarthy of Nantucket Carving and Folk Art. To protect legitimate ships, the government required all ships to have signage on the aft quarter of the vessel. It typically fell to the ship’s figurehead carver to make the “quarterboards.”

Because of the treacherous shoals around Cape Cod and the Islands, shipwrecks were common during the heyday of the maritime trade, from around 1850 to the 1930s. “The quarterboards collected from wrecked ships were huge—perhaps eight to ten feet long and appropriate to the scale of the ship,” writes Sharon Hubbard in “Quarterboards: A Unique Art Form” (Mill Hill Press, 2008). “Due to their size and shape, the most likely place to store them was on the wall of a house or barn.”

McCarthy has been hand carving quarterboards for 50 years and figures he’s produced about 9,000 signs in that time. His business partner, Jean Petty, an expert in color matching, does all of the time-consuming finish work along with complete restorations of old pieces. While quarterboards were originally sized to the scale of a ship, today they are sized to the scale of trim boards on a typical house, he says. Since most trim boards are 5.5 inches, the typical quarterboard is 4.5 inches high. The length is determined by the amount of text to be carved onto the board. “Some people start giving me encyclopedias for these quarterboards,” he says with a laugh, but most are around 4 feet long.

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