Billboards: Not Just Another Pretty Space    by Marjorie Dorfman

The billboard is as American as apple pie. How did it get here and what does it tell us about our popular culture?

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
Iíll never see a tree at all.
Ogden Nash, Song of The Open Road

Ogden Nashís words are playful and amusing, but in the 1960s when he first penned them, he wasnít kidding at all. The billboard industry, hip, hi-tech and glitzy though it may be today, is still considered "pollution on a stick" by those who shun the phenomenon as a significant factor in American advertising history. We are a billboard nation, so much so that we cannot see the forest for the trees. (Forgive the pun.) We have become immune to the degree to which they have taken over our landscapes and our thinking. Who has never seen the billboard of the little blonde girl on the beach and the puppy pulling down her bathing suit to reveal the only spot untouched by suntan lotion? And what about those consecutive Burma-Shave signs that festooned American highways in the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties? Their jingles commanded attention, like the following:
Use This Cream
A Day Or Two
Then Donít Call Her
Sheíll Call You
Burma Shave

Before the days when America’s countryside was diminished by super highways and faster cars, huge billboards ruled the roads. Few things connote America’s lost innocence better than these old Burma-Shave signs that flourished in a time that is no more; a time of family picnics and quiet Sundays at Grandma’s house. (She lived over the river and through the woods, if I recall correctly.)

How and where did it all begin? Outdoor advertising, believe it or not, can trace its roots back to the days of ancient Egypt when merchants chiseled (maybe in more ways than one) stone messages on stone tablets and placed them along public roadways. The development of paper, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in 1450 and lithography in 1796 expanded the creative dimensions of outdoor design. Posting bills on wooden boards led to the birth of the term "billboard." In the 1830s American road side advertising was mostly local. Merchants painted signs or glued posters on walls or fences to notify passersby that up the road could be found everything from a cure for rheumatism to a good sturdy horse blanket (and maybe even a horse with rheumatism as well!)

Technological improvements in printing made it possible to print larger sheets that could be mounted in several pieces to create much larger posters. The large American outdoor poster (more than 50 square feet) originated in New York City by Jared Bell who, in 1835, printed the first poster of such size for the circus. In 1872 The International Bill Posters Association was formed. Subsequent organizations eventually became the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which is still the main industry association today.

In 1900 the billboard became standardized with the design of a structure that could maintain varying numbers of poster sheets each 42" x 28" in size. The standardized format burst upon the early twentieth century scene not with a whimper, but with a bang. Big companies like Kellogg, Palmolive and Coca-Cola began mass-producing billboards for the national market. After World War I, advertising began to mature as a profession and more Americans began to own more cars. According to author James Fraser, "the automobile was the essential element for billboard expansion." More and more highways created more and more opportunities to reach the traveling public with messages of all kinds.

When LadyBird Johnson wanted to beautify America, she launched a campaign against billboards, which resulted in The Highway Beautification Act of 1965. It controlled billboards on Interstate and federal-aid primary highways by limiting their use to commercial and industrial areas. It also required states to set size, lighting and spacing standards and provided just compensation for the removal of lawfully erected signs. Ted Turner inherited his father’s billboard company but sold it and opted for a career in television instead. When tobacco and liquor advertisers were forced off the airwaves in the early 1970s, they found a new life on billboards.

Until the 1990s most billboards were handpainted on plywood. Quality was inconsistent at best. When the paint faded and the wood chipped, (when the chips are down?) billboards became eyesores. Today, digital technology has transformed the industry with computer painted outdoor advertising formats. The old-fashioned sign painter is no more and plywood has given way to a durable vinyl that can be cut to any size. Huge graphics can be produced more quickly and at lower cost and digital printing insures faithful reproduction. This means that whatever the product advertised, it looks the same everywhere. (I can’t even say that about myself. Can you?)

But, aye my friends that is the rub, as a famous, bearded Englishman used to say. Billboards are everywhere there are sets of eyes to view them, and they have become the cheapest way to reach mass audiences. There is no escape for the weary traveler or consumer. Billboards can be found at bus shelters, kiosks, airports and even the tops of taxicabs! A walk along New York’s Great White Way is staggering to the eye even in broad daylight. Try it some time, but if you dare, I suggest you get especially dark glasses. You’ll have to take your chances that no one will mistake you for a famous movie star, but fore-warned is forearmed. These colors are not for the phobic or the faint hearted.

Billboards reflect changing social trends and highlight the popular culture of their period. They reveal marketing techniques used over the span of the twentieth century and showcase many fine commercial artists. Movie studios regularly seek images of old billboards to enhance the period look of their feature films. Whether we like it or not, outdoor advertising is a phenomenon known to everyone and we respond to it. Ephemeral though it may be, it remains a part of business and a part of culture.

The RC Maxwell Company of Trenton New Jersey, founded in 1894 was one of the earliest outdoor advertising companies. Its archives housed at The John W. Hartman Center For Sales Advertising and Marketing History at Duke University contain over 35,000 photographs of signs and billboards dating as far back as 1917. The earliest photos were created from glass negatives, from which 8x10 inch prints were made. These high quality images are priceless because many of them depict urban or rural landscapes with buildings and automobiles that have long ago faded into time. The Hartman Center maintains more than 9,000 images with data base information, relating to the early history of advertising in the United States. It also includes hundreds of books and periodicals on the subject of poster art and many other related themes. Drawn from the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, these materials provide an informative perspective on the early evolution of the American billboard.

Will there ever be a time when the billboard will not be with us? I tend to doubt it. We are and shall remain one nation and one billboard indivisible. I suppose we might consider adjusting the industry to our own needs, just as its early developers did. Suppose for example, we invent a way to post them higher, way above eye level. Or maybe make them lower, so low that our tires cross over them on the roadways? Macadam is damned! What about one, long running billboard all across the country and state lines? Thatís one way to keep a nation guessing, isnít it? Couldnít we also consider placing billboards in areas where most of the populace is illiterate? (Highlight those Ivy League towns.) Who knows what could develop from there? One day someone might ask: "whatís your sign?" and start another social revolution. I told you, billboards are not just another pretty space!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2002