Nowhere but New England.

thickly settled sign

On a recent stay in Waltham, MA (a town about 15 miles west of Boston), I came across, repeatedly, a traffic sign I’ve never seen anywhere else. Its particular wording is so redolent of colonial times that you just know you never will see it anywhere else. Other locales might urge caution in unusually population-dense areas with a sign like “Watch for Pedestrians,” or “Caution: Congested Area,” or simply “Slow,” but “Thickly Settled” is so clearly a remnant from the Puritan seventeenth and eighteenth century mindset that it has a wonderful indigenous charm. The word “thickly” conjures up some Hawthornian state of nature, as in a forest thick with trees before the arrival of ships from England; the word “settled” harkens back to America’s first immigrants, who arrived on those ships, and what they did. You can’t not see an early colonial village in your mind’s eye when you see that sign. The words are not an ersatz attempt to evoke an earlier time, but rather, it seems clear, have remained in continuous usage such that the residents don’t give a second thought to the matter, even if no one else could fail to catch the phrase’s special flavor.

But the sign is not just a bit of New Englandy charm. A little research reveals it has a specific meaning, and a sanction attached to that meaning. According to the Massachusetts RMV Driving Manual, “a ‘thickly settled’ district is an area where houses or other buildings are located, on average, less than 200 feet apart.” And these areas come with a specific (if unposted) speed limit: Speeds over 30 MPH in such areas are ticketable offenses, because speeds exceeding this in “thickly settled” areas are not considered “reasonable and proper.”

Massachusetts could simply post speed limit signs in population-dense areas, but who would want that? Not I. The “Thickly Settled” sign is a bastion of regional flavor in an increasingly homogenized world.

The occasion of our visit to Waltham, by the way, was the graduation of our niece Hannah Chalew from Brandeis University. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude, with Highest Honors in Studio Art, and was the recipient of the Mitchell Siporin Memorial Prize. (Siporin was a social realist painter who founded the Department of Fine Arts at Brandeis in 1951. His work is contained in the Smithsonian American Art Musuem, among other places.)

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7 Comments on “Nowhere but New England.”

  1. Mazel on the graduation and the post.

  2. […] research turns up that they are actually called “New England style hot dog buns,” so, just like Thickly Settled road signs, this bun is an indigenous regional treasure. I’m picking up hints that the origin of the bun […]

  3. Kim says:

    Well, I googled “Thickly Settled” and came across this site.
    I live in a small town called “Ware” and on my road, there is the same sign, but no speed limit posted on the road. Its a long road, about a 8 minute drive from one end to the other with side streets off it. Its a back road, in the woods.
    Anyhow, I never see cops in this area. Habit is to drive quickly down this road as its the road I take to get to the main road to get to the Mass Pike.
    Well, on December 26th 2009 I, it was 10pm and I was driving at a steady rate as there is barely any cars ever on this road and as I was within about a mile of my house, I all the sudden saw blue lights of a police car turn on. I was like ohhhh shit!?!
    So I was pulled over for speeding. I told the cop there is no speed limit sign on the road (had to say something in my defense) he told me about the signs at the begining of the wooded area with the sign stating “Thickly Settled” and that that sign means the speed limit there is 35 mph. I didn’t know that and told him so. He said now I know and handed me back my licence and a speeding ticket for 280 dollars!
    I sent it in for a hearing (its not going to look good on me as I got a speeding ticket on the Pike about 6 weeks before that I have a hearing already scheduled for soon). I am upset that I got caught driving fast down the road, even though I should have been going slower but how can that ticket stick if there is no accual speed limit sign?
    Oh, and to answer what you must be thinking, I was clocked on his radar going 58!
    So yeah, getting caught speeding twice in the last 2 months has taught me a big lesson and honestly slowed me down to no going over 5 miles over any speed limit anywhere now!!
    Lesson learned!
    ~Kim~

  4. Alicia says:

    I am creating a booktalk for the book Driver’s Ed and I would love to use your Thickly Settled sign picture. Do you grant me permission to use it with citation?

  5. Ted Naron says:

    Alicia, at this point, five years on, I can’t remember if I took the picture, or if I found it on the internet somewhere. If I did take the picture, you have my permission to use it. If I didn’t take it, my permission is irrelevant. (But you may find a similar or identical one elsewhere.)

  6. Michael says:

    The reason for “thickly settled” instead of showing the actual speed limit is that in order to put up speed limit signs, a town has to establish, with objective evidence, what the “reasonable and proper” speed is, and has to repeat that at set intervals. Putting up “thickly settled” signs does not require that effort. It does not even require verifying that the houses are less than 200′ apart.The signs may as well say “leaves on trees” or “road is black” or some other nonsense.The only thing that matters is whether buildings are in fact spaced within 200′ on average (not specifying how large the area being averaged has to be), whether or not there are any signs. So if the area is rural, the best defense would be to demonstrate that the houses in the area are spaced further apart, i.e., that the area is not really thickly settled within the meaning of the law

  7. tom says:

    when i got my license the law read 10 house or dwellings in a 1/4 mile


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