12 January 2012

Billboards - Late 1800s

Buyways by Catherine Gudis, 2004, Excerpts

Until the 1900s, the use of billboards remained an uneven and unchecked practice. Advertising space was not yet construed as real estate. Outdoor advertising was still considered a public spectacle that encompassed all imaginable territory, from chimney tops to curbstones, and from romantic glens to roadside rocks. A fundamental development for the billposting industry came with the novel idea to formally lease space on which to advertise, and to construct special boards on which to do so.

The first recorded instance of specially built and leased outdoor advertising was in 1869. They began to construct their own boards on which to paste bills – hence the name ‘billboards.’ The formation of billboard companies and their more formal claims to urban and rural space meant that outdoor advertising had begun to carve out a legitimate place in the rapidly changing commercial landscape of the industrial age.

The first tenuous step to turn billposting into a respectable profession came in 1872, when eleven concerned billposters decided to form the International Billposters’ Association of North America, the first association of advertisers in the country. The Billposters’ Association assured advertisers that their members were the only ones able to provide reliable and certifiable billposting services. They followed through on this promise by having members pledge with bonds that they would fulfill contracts for billposting, and then by penalizing those who reneged on contracts.

In cities across the nation, advertising extended the skyward reach of construction, especially in the first years of the 1900s. Rooftop signs, now illuminated with electricity, created a new spectacle and skyline. Like the buildings rising in growing metropolises, billboards contributed to the accretion of commercial centers and formalized the incursion of pictures and texts in the public sphere.

Metropole, New York, 1909

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