Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Selling the Eyes of the Public – Washington Wages War on Billboards – for a century

Selling the Eyes of the Public – Washington Wages War on Billboards

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

Technological advances in outdoor advertising have again outstripped regulatory control. Washingtonians are once again struggling to control advertising in and adjacent to public space. To the surprise of some, perhaps, this struggle has been going on for well over a century. As printing technology evolved, a profusion of garish, dubious advertising signs, cropped up in Washington and the rest of urban America.

“The bill-poster’s dream” (1862). image–New York Public Library Digital Collections, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Div. of Art, Prints Photographs, Print Collection.

Advertising out of doors has been traced back millennia. Billboards today find their origin in the posting of individual advertisements–“bills”—pasted up wherever there was (and sometimes wasn’t) public wall space to accommodate them. These bills advertised events—the circus, theater, political rallies. (The term “bill” is still used in this context today, as in a theater bill or bill of fare.) But wall space was often congested—particularly the best spots. Bills weren’t removed after the event, just pasted over. Bill posters warred against each other—overpasting each other’s bills—in some cases leading to ironic or amusing juxtapositions.

Business signs in contrast to event-driven bills, advertised the business name (and products available) at a specific location. It was outdoor advertising too, but specific, not generic or event-driven like bills. Business advertising for small neighborhood businesses could get rather exuberant, illustrated by this 1901 image of Hawkins’ Drug Store in southeast Washington.


Downtown Washington saw much more elaborate advertising, such as that of Eiseman Brothers at E and 7th Streets NW. Here Eisenman has made their awnings permanent and festooned them with the business name in five-foot-tall letters. To crown it all, the roof has another (slightly smaller) sign. Practices like the occupation of sidewalk public space by Eiseman is one of problems prompting Washington’s first sign regulations.



The issues with outdoor advertising diverged. The rights of a business to advertise their wares on their building (within the limits of good taste) seemed indisputable—billboards were something else. Economic and technological ingenuity lead to the end of the “bill wars”. Companies purchased the right to erect large, free-standing boards (“bill boards” or “billboards”) for their exclusive use. Advances in printing lithographic technology allowed the printing of much larger (and colorful) bills—now spanning multiple sheets. In 1891 the Associated Bill Posters’ Association of the United States and Canada (ABPA) was founded—the professional organization for outdoor advertising. This new organization brought industry members together—promulgating sign standards, publicizing best business practices through their monthly journal, and lobbying politicians. The industry flourished. Billboards were not individually or singly owned but a few companies (all belonging to the ABPA) would erect dozens through and around cities (the collection of signs was the referred to as the company’s “plant”).

COMPLETE  ARTICLE HERE: http://intowner.com/2017/05/22/selling-the-eyes-of-the-public-washington-wages-war-on-billboards/

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