Growing up in Louisa – Billboards
Lazer Feature …by Mike Coburn
While searching the recesses of my memory for a suitable subject for another article, I remembered the countless signs that dotted the rudimentary roads (by today’s standards) of blacktop and gravel that ran up and down the hills of Lawrence County. Some signs were directional, some were mere graffiti, but the ones I’ll focus on are the advertising signs. These were usually metal or porcelain, and sometimes had integral thermometers. Some had been installed on the doors of the general stores so to have a surface to push the doors open without bulging out the screens. Often they were nailed to the fronts of small filling stations (gas stations) grocery stores, or general stores, as well as the various little post offices that usually shared space in each little hamlet or community.
We saw Coca-Cola nearly everywhere, plus Happy Family Backing Powder, Heiner’s Bread, and Morton’s Salt signs with the little umbrella girls spreading her free-flowing salt along her way. We kids liked the exciting signs for Burma Shave that made us laugh and look forward to the next one. As we drove, all of our young faces were plastered to the windows, hanging out to take in every new sign as they came into view. These sets of advertising poems for Burma Shave were a real pleasure for us. I remember an early ad that was painted on a big rock just where the road forked. I don’t recall what the product was, but maybe it was a nearby restaurant, store, or a brand of paint. Anyway, they all got our attention in those days.
Billboards became a practice early in the 1830’s. I discovered this when looking for some history on-line. Two different Google sites that I looked at said that outdoor ads went back as far as the Romans, if not the Egyptians. Since I’m a little lazy, I’ll just focus on those of rural America. As they started off, roadside advertising in America was naturally local because few national brands advertised with this method. We, in those days, didn’t have much long-range traveling, and what we had was slow. Signs could be smaller in those days than now, because at the speeds we were traveling we had time to read them and still watch the road. As speeds increased, do did the size of the signs.
Store owners could get permission from a farmer to post signs, or they could sneak out and put them up at will. It was a rare farmer that tore them down or objected.
The circus was famous for posting their signs all around on most any flat surface. They could be expected a month or so prior to the circus coming to a nearby location. Signs, whether for products, stores, events, or even recruitment soon appeared on walls, fences, and free-standing holders just about anywhere you looked. Some were painted; some were printed up as big posters and ready to glue up.
Then the big wooden billboards were being added along the approaches of towns and cities. The startup of a new American industry began with these simple ads. Advertising firms sprang up including some major ones in New York city. Madison Avenue became known for those firms that later spun off the sign business in favor of the printed media, radio and television. Still, branches put up more and more billboards. Farmers would be contracted by these firms to establish right-of-ways allowing the construction and leasing of space in the prime locations. The farmers didn’t get rich, but the agencies or leasing company grew fat.
Congress passed the Bonus Act in 1958 to give the industry incentives to control the type, size, and proliferation of outdoor signs. In 1965, Lady Bird Johnson, first lady, pushed a bill for the Highway Beautification Act that her husband signed into law that same year. It limited the size, lighting, shape and spacing of highway signs.
Meanwhile, we the public, grew to trust the products we saw advertised. After all, if it was in writing it would have to be true. We began to insist on products by name because of that trust. Even today, when traveling we know of places like Cracker Barrel, McDonalds, and Burger King, and others that have already earned our trust. We know they will have restrooms and reasonably priced, standardized, quality foods, and a friendly smile.
During this evolutionary period we also saw the painted rocks that I mentioned earlier. Also, along came the Mail Pouch barns. These barns pretty much covered the highways of the eastern seaboard. Likely therey were in other places, too, but I can only speak for what I saw. The process was that one or two men wuld canvas the highways to locate barns in prime locations and get permission to paint the sign. A farmer may get his whole barn painted just so the sign facing the highway would carry the Mail Pouch sign. Sometimes he could get away not painting the whole barn with the passage of a few bucks, some free tobacco, or some other enticement. If you’d like to know more about those barns there is a lot of history on the web if you Google the subject.
My friend, Liss, pointed out to me that other signs sometimes appeared on barns. He remembered, as I did after the reminder, that you could see them with their roof broadcasting a bid sign saying, “See Rock City.” I noticed that on my trips south in North Carolina you will see many signs pushing the idea of stopping at ‘South of the Border.’ Many apparently do.
Billboards continue to line our highways but have evolved again in technology. They have changed from the flat, wallpapered signs to those that hold several messages by having panels rotate every few seconds. Now, I’m seeing more and more of something even more distracting and attention getting. They are the big LCD screens that flash bright colors and moving objects that give the driver and passenger time to review several messages and to see them clearly, in high definition.
In some places even the government is jumping on board. Highway departments are using them for Amber Alerts, announcements showing approaching storm systems, road conditions or travel time by using alternate routes, and making major news announcements. We have many of these on our hand-helds, laptops, notebooks, wrist-watches, car dashboards, and all around us. We are suddenly awash with information.
Outdoor signs are a major money-making industry now. People start businesses renting land and installing these signs along the interstates, charging good money to host an ad for a period of time. These often perform important functions as they tell us of the next place to eat, get gas, or spend the night. I’m told by one investor that advertising companies’ line up to have their client’s products or services presented in this fashion. Even small businesses now can post their menus or specials and do it in high definition. The world is looking more like ‘Times Square’ than ever before. Big screens are everywhere; each competing for your attention. Frankly, they are a little hard to ignore.