You may know that billboards started in ancient Egypt. You may have heard that P.T. Barnum popularized them in the United States and that tobacco ads used to populate the landscape.
But did you know there have been major fights over whether billboards have the right to exist? That a major New York newspaper dismissed them as wasteful in their early days? That Barnum really hijacked the billboard idea from someone else? Or that billboards’ early association with lithography led artistic critics to reject the medium?
There’s a long and fascinating history associated with billboards, full of controversy and intrigue. Let’s dive in, starting in ancient Egypt.
Rewind 5,200 Years to the City of Elkab
Archeologists recently found the first instances of billboards, dating to 3250 B.C. Rather than advertising, say, the Egyptian equivalent of Diet Coke, these billboards appear to have been used for propaganda.
They display gigantic hieroglyphics that essentially illustrate the dominance of the Egyptian rulers over the entire world. This seems pretty heavy-handed, but then again, these days you can’t go 45 seconds without seeing a political ad, so perhaps it was just a precursor of things to come.
Fast-Forward to Europe in the 1440s
Here we meet Johannes Gutenberg, a young man of means who is displaced from his comfortable life in Germany following an uprising against the patrician class. Gutenberg, who had been studying to become a goldsmith, was forced to learn a new trade.
Alas, Gutenberg rather shadily engaged in the selling of objects that claimed to capture the “holy light” of religious relics (mirrors—he was selling mirrors, but apparently people didn’t know any better in 1439). He lost some money in the holy light business, so he turned his attention to inventing the printing press. This eventually allowed for the production of flyers, handbills, posters and more that became the first form of billboards.
Lithography Comes of Age in the 1790s
In addition to print, billboards feature art. That aspect of the medium became transferable in the 1790s, when Alois Senefelder invented the lithograph, a sort of 18th-century copying machine that made it easy to reproduce illustrations with color.
This innovation was not without controversy, either. Art critics, apparently snobs in any century, turned up their noses at the idea that art could be so easily replicated. They criticized the concept and anyone who used it.
The invention of the printing press and lithograph made it easier to copy things. This led to businesses printing advertisements for their wares. But where to put them? Taking out an ad in the paper was cost-prohibitive for many. Meanwhile, the price was right to glue these flyers to fence posts and building walls (arguably the early form of Wild Posting®). That is, it was free.
What a Circus: Why P.T. Barnum Did NOT Invent the Billboard
We’re finally at the part of billboard history left out of “The Greatest Showman.” While P.T. Barnum wasn’t the originator of the concept, a circus man did, indeed, bring the practice into the mainstream.
To advertise a circus, Jared Bell became the first person to put up a billboard in 1835. These large and colorful posters drew people’s eyes. Barnum saw how well this worked and began looking for billboard space in other towns before his circus came through, effectively drumming up excitement for his traveling troupe.
Growing Pains As the Outdoor Industry Booms
Following this millennia-long run-up, outdoor advertising took off quickly in the United States. By 1867, businesses began leasing billboard space. Within three years, more than 300 companies painting signs and creating bills had popped up. In post-war America, with all sides still wary of the truce, billboards became a reliable industry.
By 1872, a group in St. Louis had formed the International Bill Posters’ Association of North America. A booklet published in 1910, entitled “The Poster,” detailed how the modern industry came about. That was not without debate, either. Many people worried about what they saw as the wastefulness of Gilded Age billboards.
In 1887, the New York Star ran an editorial taking exception to the “thousands of tons of paper and oceans of paste consumed in decorating the fences,” noting, “to successfully carry on the bill-posting business in any large town or city of the United States, considerable capital must be invested.”
The Star estimated that $2 million was poured into the industry each year across the country, including $150K in New York. The paper claimed that 50 to 100 men pasted flyers throughout the city, amounting to roughly 10 million sheets per week during the busy season. (The paper may have been overestimating …)
So Many Industry Billboard Groups
By 1891, many states had established their own billposter organizations, and in 1900 a more standardized physical structure for billboards emerged.
This, interestingly, laid to rest some of those environmental issues the New York Star had complained about more than a decade before. Standardized billboard sizes allowed companies to run the same ads in lots of different places. They were easier to plan for and didn’t require as much manpower.
During this period, big names such as Coca-Cola and Kellogg made billboards a regular part of their national marketing plan. Within just 12 years, most cities had a national outdoor advertising presence.
Of course, this wouldn’t be the media industry without some intrigue. Two of the earliest outdoor ad agencies, The Fulton Group and the Cusack Co., combined in 1925 to become the General Outdoor Advertising Company (GOAC).
In 1950, the U.S. Justice Department filed an anti-trust suit against GOAC, alleging it operated a monopoly. That same year, the department also targeted the Outdoor Advertising Association of America for alleged price fixing.
The Evolution of the Modern Billboard Industry
By 1955, annual billboard sales had jumped past $100 million nationally. Three years later, the first round of federal legislation incentivizing state control of billboards along interstate highways passed. It was the start of what would become a decades-long tug-of-war between anti-billboard groups and the industry. It still rears up occasionally, and four states have outright banned billboards. We say: Their loss.
In 1970, the industry got a big boost when advertising of tobacco products was banned on broadcast media. Guess who got a windfall of advertising? Billboards, along with magazines and newspapers. It didn’t last, though. In 1999, as part of an ongoing legal battle, Big Tobacco and state attorneys general outlawed tobacco ads on outdoor structures.
The turn of the century saw the introduction of digital billboards nationwide and a move to outdoor ratings to measure how many people saw advertisements.
What will the future bring? We’ve got our own opinions on that, too. It’s been a wild ride, and it probably won’t get tamer.