Origin and Early Development of Outdoor Advertising in the United States

Donald W. Hendon, Arkansas State University
William F. Muhs, Montana State University
ABSTRACT - While outdoor advertising in the United States can be traced back to the 17th Century, its modern form originated from the influence of theaters and circuses. By the end of the 19th Century, this medium had evolved into a nationally organized industry.
[ to cite ]:
Donald W. Hendon and William F. Muhs (1985) ,"Origin and Early Development of Outdoor Advertising in the United States", in SV - Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth and Chin Tiong Tan, Singapore : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 309-313.

Historical Perspective in Consumer Research: National and International Perspectives, 1985     Pages 309-313


Donald W. Hendon, Arkansas State University

William F. Muhs, Montana State University


While outdoor advertising in the United States can be traced back to the 17th Century, its modern form originated from the influence of theaters and circuses. By the end of the 19th Century, this medium had evolved into a nationally organized industry.


Before discussing the origin and early development of outdoor advertising in the United States, it is important to discuss the development of other media, especially newspapers, which, from the beginning, offered stronger competition to the outdoor advertising medium than had their counterparts in Great Britain, for reasons which will be discussed later.

While it was still a British colony, the United States copied most of its advertising methods and media from Britain (Foster 1967, p. 36). Tavern signs, signs or objects over shops symbolizing and identifying the tradesman, and the handbill were commonplace in this early historical period. The posted bill, and the newspaper, however, were not. The delayed development of outdoor advertising in the United States was primarily due to the effect of newspapers.

It seems that when the first English colonists arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1620, newspapers had not yet been "invented" in England. They were familiar with the uses of the signboard and the printed pamphlet of the early seventeenth century, of course, but it would take years before civilization in the colonies had progressed to the point where signboards would first be used. John Smith came to Virginia fifteen years before the first regularly-issued newsbook was published in England. The Dutch settled New Amsterdam five years before the Amsterdam Courant, the first newspaper in the Netherlands, was begun (Presbry 1929, p. 113).

Even after the first newspaper had finally been established, as a result of the arrival of the first printing press in 1638, newspapers got off to a rather slow start in the American colonies, for the colonial governments regulated the u se of the printing press. In 1664, the Massachusetts Bay colony decreed that "no printing shall be done in any town except Cambridge," which had the only two printing presses in the colonies. The colonial government felt that the printing press would be used to incite rebellion as it had in England during the then-recent Cromwellian revolution, and they did not want the same thing to happen in America. Eventually, however, by the end of the seventeenth century, Boston had three or four presses. Philadelphia got its first printing press in 1687, and New York got its first one in 1693 (Presbry 1929, P. 119).

Newspaper growth was also hindered by a severe paper shortage. At that time, paper was made by hand from cotton rags, which had more important uses, such as patching old clothes, to the early colonists than as a source of paper. Eventually, however, Benjamin Franklin and other entrepreneurs built eighteen paper mills in the mideighteenth century.

Once the colonial governments eased restrictions and once the paper shortage was solved, newspapers began to grow quite rapidly.

When Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette appeared for the first time in 1728, in Philadelphia, there were seven newspapers in the colonies--one in Boston, one in New York, one in Annapolis, two in Philadelphia and two elsewhere. Franklin's Gazette influenced other newspapers rather quickly, as a result of the excellent quality of his printing and because of his lucid writing style. His circulation increased, and his advertising revenue grew. Shortly after the paper was founded, he began to accept illustrated advertisements (Presbry 1929, p. 132).

Franklin, through apprentices, established at least six newspapers in other towns in the colonies. He supplied his apprentices with presses and type in return for a one-third interest in the business. Advertisements, by the way, held as much interest as the news columns in those days, for they were more intimately connected with the life of the average reader (Presbry 1929, p. 154).

American newspapers expanded much more rapidly in the eighteenth century than did the British papers for several reasons. First, there were no taxes on advertisements, and second, the price of the newspapers was less than one-fourth of the British price. The cost of advertisements was nearly thirty times higher in London than in New York (Turner 1953, p. 128).

A third reason was the dispersion of the population. After the Revolution, the population of the Western territories and states grew due to the beginnings of the great Western Migration, and newspapers followed the population. By 1828, there were 852 newspapers, and by 1830, there were 1,000 newspapers (Presbry 1929, p.185).

A fourth reason for the great increase in newspapers at this time was the end of the paper shortage. The Fourdrinier paper-making machine, which was invented in 1820, eliminated the need for rags to make paper. Paper became cheap, and the cost of the average newspaper declined. With the introduction of steam-powered printing, it became possible to print papers in great quantities, and eventually, mass circulation of newspapers occurred.

A fifth reason was that in 1833, the New York Sun, a very successful tabloid, began operating. It was the first paper to sell on the streets through newsboys. It was the first one-cent newspaper, and it was one-third the size of the more orthodox newspapers of the time which sold for six cents each. The editorial matter emphasized local (especially police) and other human-interest stories, and it soon had the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world. The Sun popularized the newspaper reading habit in the United States, and the number of newspapers grew from 2,000 in 1847 to 4,000 in 1854 (Presbry 1929, p. 210).

It is interesting to note that American papers soon abandoned Franklin's practice of accepting illustrated advertisements and began to adopt the British practice of banning the use of any type size larger than minion (Turner 1953, p. 133). Since they did not allow display type nor illustrations, all advertising was done in the style of today's want-ads. As in Britain, newspapers believed that the circulation value of many small advertisements was greater than the circulation value of many large advertisements. Because the smaller advertisers who could not afford displays would be overshadowed by the larger ones, the smaller advertisers would be hurt, and that, it was felt by the newspaper publishers, would be bad for business. There was also a tradition against breaking column rules. In order to break a column rule, the rule had to be sawed by hand. Whenever an advertisement was allowed to break a column rule, the price of the advertisement increased greatly (Presbry 1929, p. 257).

However, advertisers did not migrate to other media to the same extent as they had in Britain. According to Printers Ink (1938), advertisers continued to use newspapers more than any other medium, and they tried to get around the restrictions on display advertising by forming shapes with agate type and by shaping large letters out of smaller ones (Presbry 1929, p. 235). Eventually, Robert Bonner's New York Ledger, an immensely successful newspaper, which started in 1851, permitted display advertising, and this practice soon attracted many advertisers. Bonner advertised his Ledger in other New York newspapers by repeating the same phrase over and over throughout the space he purchased, either a column or an entire page. He also made use of large amounts of white space in his advertisements to attract the eye. All of these practices were considered revolutionary at the time. Eventually, however, his point of view that larger type and variety in type faces were desirable in newspaper advertising became prevalent. Even with this breakthrough in conservative thinking, however, display advertising was not extensively used in the United States until near the end of the nineteenth century, probably as a result of the John Wanamaker Department Store's popularizing the use of headlines, large type, white space, and new style of copy in the 1880's (Presbry 1929, p. 334).

Competition was increasing from other media, as well, Magazines made their first appearance in the United States in the middle third of the nineteenth century (Foster 1967). Up almost until the Civil War, however, advertising in magazines was non-existent. Magazines did not want to sell advertising in their pages at the beginning and even refused to admit it. When admittance was granted, they did little to welcome patronage. Century magazine was the first one to solicit advertisements outright, and this magazine quickly attained a leadership in advertising volume for ten years, until Harper's passed it in 1890 (Printers Ink 1938, p. 41).


Outdoor advertising evolved in the United States in much the same way that it had in Britain, but at a much slower pace. Primarily, as we have shown, a result of the fact that the printed circulating media, especially newspapers, were firmly established from the beginnings of the English colonization of America. In the seventeenth century, outdoor advertising in the United States first began with the heraldic inn-tavern sign. The pictorial sign and the tradesman's symbol, the wooden Indian, and the barber's pole, arrived in the early part of the eighteenth century. As literacy increased, and as towns and competition grew, the lettered sign came into being, since the effectiveness of signs demanded something more than a mere display of the symbol of the trade (Presbry 1929, p. 498) .

The first users of signboards were taverns and coffee houses, but even these did not come into existence until the population was large enough to support them.

The signboard, of course, was only on-the-premises advertising, which could be seen only by those people who passed the place of business under which the sign was located. The first off-the-premises outdoor advertising probably consisted of the auction sale handbill or the stagecoach timetable, tacked up in various locations in the towns. By the middle of the eighteenth century, small bills advertising the casts of traveling theatrical shows were put up at the locations where crowds tended to gather, especially at the inn-tavern. Tradesmen began to post their own bills at these inns, since other bills had always been posted there, and people normally received most of their information of that nature there.

The posted bills at the inns or taverns were more in the nature of bulletin board announcements, however. As had been the case in Britain, outdoor advertising in the modern sense probably began with advertisements for lotteries, which were common in eighteenth century New England. These bills were printed on the few printing presses in the colonies at that time. They were tacked up wherever crowds gathered in the towns, as well as on trees on the sides of the roads in the countryside (Presbry 1929, p. 498).

The posted-up bill, the forerunner of today's standardized outdoor advertising poster, started quite spontaneously in this country. The earliest advertisers using the medium were circuses, theatrical shows, county and state fairs, carnivals, and medicine shows. Notices of sale of farm stock and equipment were likewise common.

But it was not until the advent of large-scale circuses that outdoor advertising became important in the United States (Agnew 1938, p. 27). In the 1790's, the first circus advertising appeared in the form of newspaper announcements (Foster 1967, p. 87). By 1800, however, the circus was the main advertiser using the outdoor medium. Most of the bills were 18-inch broadsides. At this time, too, patent-medicine manufacturers began to paint their advertising messages on rocks and fences. Then came clothing store announcements, in the forms of both printed bills and painted announcements. By 1830, outdoor advertising, or billstocking, as it was known then, was a fairly large business in the larger cities of the United States, but it was restricted for the most part to a "promiscuous part-time employment of unorganized men (Agnew 1938, p. 45)."


Since it was through the circus that the United States finally became exposed to outdoor advertising in its earliest form, its historical development becomes of great importance to this paper. It was the manner in which Phineas Taylor Barnum made use of advertising that initially helped outdoor advertising to grow in this nation more than anything else. His use of superlatives went over bigger on a handbill and on a poster than in the newspapers which did not allow display advertising (Presbry 1929, p. 225). Barnum's American Museum in New York City used illustrated bills quite extensively in the 1840's. In fact, it was because of Barnum that large illustrated posters first began to be used.

It seems that in the 1840's, Barnum had demanded an illustration of himself four times larger than any illustration yet made for use in his advertising. Edward Purcell, a wood engraver whom Barnum had hired for this purpose, decided to try the use of pine wood instead of going along with the prevalent use of boxwood for this purpose, and he succeeded. The large illustrations with their pinkish flesh tones caused a tremendous amount of attention. Thus, it was Barnum who gave pictorial outdoor advertising its initial spurt. Theatrical posters soon began to show actors in their parts instead of mere portraits. Traveling circuses began to use illustrated posters in greater quantities (Presbry 1929, p. 499).

At first, the typical American traveling circus was small. It traveled mainly by wagon, and it used no advance publicity other than the circus parade, a tradition which had begun in medieval Europe. Sometimes, the owner would come into a town with a clown, and while the clown performed, the owner would tack up posters. The performance would be given in the afternoon, since there were no lighting facilities available, and the troupe would move on at the end of its performance (Foster 1967, p. 86). Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth" soon changed things.

Barnum, who had been very successful with his American Museum, had grown restless in retirement, and, in 1871, he agreed to lend his name to an eight-year old circus, begun by James Ebeneezer Cooper in Philadelphia, which had just been purchased by William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello. Several innovations of Cameron Coup came into being through the Barnum, Coup, and Castello Circus, which opened in 1871 under three acres of canvas in Brooklyn, N.Y. The first was that evening shows were made possible for the first time through the use of gas-lighting. Second, since this circus was much too large to be pulled by horses, it became the first circus to travel by railroad, and it even performed on the West Coast of the United States, since the Trans-Continental Railroad had recently been completed in 1869. Third, the first "advance man" came into being. Several days ahead of the circus train, Cameron Coup, who was a former circus roustabout and tramp printer, would paste eight-foot posters on buildings within a 50-mile radius of where the circus would play. Fourth, a quick unloading method was put into effect (Foster 1967, p. 59)..

However, while the "Greatest Show on Earth" was still the Barnum, Coup, and Castello Circus, its innovative techniques of transportation, advertising, and parading were copied by almost all of the circuses of the 1870's, including those which were bought out by Ringling Brothers in 1929. The advance men of all of these circuses secured locations for posters by giving out free passes to farmers who allowed the posters to be pasted on the sides of their barns and to those merchants who allowed posters to be displayed in their store windows and on their wooden sidewalks.


During this formative period, almost every town had an "opera house," and such famous celebrities as Chauncey Olcott, Madame Schumann-Heink, Sarah Bernhardt, and other road shows would be booked for an engagement at the local opera house in even the very smallest towns. Just as the circus had done, posters would be displayed all over the area in advance of the engagement featuring these attractions, and the usual result was a packed house. Many of these opera house owners built their own boards to post show bills. The boards were known as "stands" in those days, a term which did not last (Sharpe 1955).

Thus, the first embryonic outdoor advertising companies were formed--both from the ranks of the carnival advance men and from the ranks of the owners of theaters or opera houses, especially from the latter (Graham 1963, p. 298). The medium at that time was more or less dominated by the influence of theatrical showings as opposed to showings of consumer products, since a large number of plants throughout the nation were owned and operated by theater managers and owners. In fact, in many cities, each theater would have its own poster plant, and as each theater was in competition with the other, each theater's poster plant was in competition with the other theater's poster plants.

Because the theatrical side of the business was so much more important to the early poster plant operator, each plant owner was continually fearful of losing the theatrical business to another poster plant. Actually, few boards were owned by the poster companies of that time, and most of the posters put up were in the form of "snipes," "daubs," and "three-sheet locations," at first (Fitzgerald 1941, p. 15). But there was great competition for good locations, and the small three-sheet bills, which were the most common size, began to be posted, helter-skelter, on the freshly-pasted bills of competitors by itinerant men of the street, common laborers, who happened to be hired for this piecework task by the "plant owners" of that time. These itinerants posted wherever there was a stretch of fence or wall large enough, and usually at night when the property owners were not available for discussion of space rates or to chase them away. If fences were not tall enough to accommodate the full height of the bills or posters, the excess was left trailing on the ground or pasted upon the adjoining sidewalk. No assurance was given by nor expected of the bill-poster who stuck up the bills on board fences, walls, ash cans, buildings, barns, and such other places as chance might offer, that the bills would remain exposed to the public for any particular period. The bills might be covered by some rival billposter almost as soon as posted by another batch of bills to be stuck up, which was frequently the case; or, as sometimes happened, they might be covered up by the very bill-poster who had stuck them up in the first instance (Frost 1939, p. 14).

Eventually the advertisers demanded that measures be taken to insure exposer of the messages for a fixed period of time. However, since the theater owners who ran the majority of poster plants regarded the bill-posting business as secondary to the theatrical business, not much attention was paid to the advertiser's demands. A stage hand was usually entrusted with the obligation of helping an advertiser check a poster showing. As Fitzgerald (1941) puts it,

the theatrical man would not lower himself to be classed as the "city bill-poster A man who was constantly associating with such celebrities as Edmund Booth, Annie Pixley, Clara Morris, Lotta and Lawrence Barrett, could hardly be expected to spend his time helping an advertiser check a poster showing (p. 15).

Eventually, by 1872, contracting companies began to develop, and as more and more manufacturers began to compete with the entertainment world for posting space, these contractors began to pay for the exclusive right to post bills on definite locations, such as fences and walls. Again, the contractors' names were painted on the leased bill-posting surface in order to indicate their exclusive control of locations, and, eventually, they built special structures in the locations with the heaviest traffic. These structures were originally called "fences," and for many years, the use of the term "fences" persisted in the industry, even after special structures for posting bills upon came to be widely employed. One reason was that building permits were often required by municipal authorities for these special structures, and as they were somewhat in the nature of a wooden fence, it was quite natural to ask for and secure permits for fences of certain heights and length. Eventually, these structures became known as "billboards," or merely "boards," (Frost 1939).

The word "billboard" is of American origin, and has embedded itself into the vernacular of the American industry as deeply as the term "hoardings" did in the british industry (Frost 1939).

As contractors began to take some of the nontheatrical business of the theatrically-owned poster plants, and as the legitimate theater waned with the advent of the silent movies, nickelodeons, and vaudeville, the theatrical man began to take an entirely new attitude toward his show business, which, even at its height, only ran approximately 32 weeks per year, from September through May. During the remainder of the year, the theatrical manager depended upon other advertisers for revenue. Eventually, he began to solicit business for the entire year and guaranteed exposure of advertising messages for a fixed period of time. It was no longer considered "part of the game" for posters to be posted over or even torn down shortly after they first went up (Agnew 1938, p. 28.). Fixed rates also began to be established, and the practice of paying itinerant poster-laborers with a few tickets to the theatrical shows instead of in cash disappeared (Graham 1963).


Agnew (1938) marks the year 1870 as the dividing line between ancient and modern outdoor advertising for several reasons. By 1870, printing and lithography had improved as a result of technological improvement in equipment, which now included a web-fed printing press, stereotyping, paper-folding machines, and a new lithograph half-tone. Jules Cheret, the first real poster artist, was influencing Europe at this time, and shortly afterward, the United States. The United States government's use of outdoor advertising during the Civil War and the use by it of Barnum spread the business throughout the United States, until, by the late 1860's, there were approximately 275 professional billposting and board and rock signpainting companies in this country, each employing from two to twenty men each (Presbry 1929, p. 500).

The medium had by this time developed from the advance agents of the circuses and from the entrepreneurs of the theaters and opera houses. These men saw possibilities of putting the mass coverage of the growing population of this country to work for commercial advertisers, and so the availability of posters grew steadily, town by town, until the few metropolitan markets offering showings in the 1870's and 1880's were joined by many more intermediate-sized and smaller towns (Signs of the Times 1956).

By this time, too, the nature of the business had evolved from the "snipe" posting of the itinerant piece-work laborers to the contractors who paid for the exclusive right to post bills on definite locations. Advertisers finally began to be given guarantees by the industry that their message would stay up for a fixed period of time. The first outdoor advertising companies which rented or bought point locations from merchants and citizens of the town and leased the space to advertisers began to appear in the 1870's (Graham 1963, p. 298). The earliest recorded leasing occurred in the United States in 1870, when George P. Rowell and Company rented the entire fence built around the construction site of the New York City post office for the purpose of putting up posters. Kissam and Allen, a New York City billposting company, which was in business from 1872 through 1878, was the first firm to erect its own boards (Presbry 1929, p. 501).

Another big change occurred in the 1870's when the first nation-wide paint service firm, Bradbury and Houghteling, was formed in 1870. Even though most of the painted outdoor signs were done by the advertisers themselves, who hired painters of their own, C. S. Houghteling's firm, during the thirteen years of its existence, became the largest outdoor advertising company in the nation, quickly outdistancing the 250 firms which had offered limited paint service to national manufacturers (Presbry 1929). Although "Old Hote's" firm was the largest outdoor advertising company in the nation at that time, his operations were quite small by today's standards. His main business consisted of subletting a considerable number of contracts for painted displays for such companies as Hood's Sarsaparilla, and others, as well as subletting a considerable number of posting contracts. The Hood paint contract covered nearly the entire country, and very few barns, sheds, or fences along the railroad lines were without the message, "Use Hood's Sarsaparilla" (Fitzgerald 1941).

Too, during the decade of the 1870's and afterward, several "giants" of the industry first entered the business. "Honest John" Connelley, who founded a large Boston outdoor advertising plant which is still being operated by his heirs, had worked as an advance man for the Jenny Lind National Tour for P. I. Barnum, and later, devoted all his energies to the outdoor advertising business (Wood 1958, p. 347). R. J. Gunning founded a firm in Chicago in 1873, while Thomas Cusack began competing against Gunning there in 1875 (Presbry 1929, p. 501). 0. J. Cude organized a billposting firm in the New York City borough of Brooklyn in 1878. The latter three companies soon became and remained for many years the leading outdoor advertising firms in the nation.

The main event of the 1870's, and probably the main reason for Agnew's choice of 1870 as the "dividing line between ancient and modern outdoor advertising" was the organization of the industry. In 1872, a small portion of outdoor advertising organized itself into the International Bill Posters' Association of North America. This organization only lasted twelve years, (Outdoor Advertising Committee of the Association of National Advertisers, 1952, p. 24), although as a result of its efforts, the industry also began to become organized on a state-wide basis shortly afterward. In 1891, the first permanent national outdoor association was formed, the Associated Bill Posters' Association of the United States and Canada. The transition to the modern era had been made.


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