The history of billboards and outdoor advertising LANE TWO (2023)

You must know that billboards started in ancient Egypt. You may have heard that P.T. Barnum popularized them in the United States, and tobacco advertising shaped the landscape.
But did you know that there have been huge battles over whether billboards have a raison d'être? That a major New York newspaper considered them a waste in their early days? That Barnum actually hijacked someone else's poster idea? Or that the early association of billboards with lithography led art critics to reject the medium?
Billboards have a long and fascinating history of controversy and intrigue. Let's dive in, starting in ancient Egypt.

Rewind 5200 years to the city of Elkab

Archaeologists have recently discovered thefirst instances of billboards, dated to 3250 BC. For example, instead of advertising the Egyptian equivalent of Diet Coke, these billboards appear to have been used for advertising purposes.

They feature huge hieroglyphs that essentially illustrate the dominance of Egyptian rulers across the world. That seems pretty clunky, but then again, you can't go 45 seconds these days without seeing a political ad, so maybe it's just a harbinger of things to come.

Fast forward to Europe in the 1440s

Here we meet Johannes Gutenberg, a wealthy young man who is uprooted from his comfortable life in Germany after an uprising against the patrician class. Gutenberg, who had studied goldsmithing, had to learn a new trade.

Unfortunately, Gutenberg became more obscurely involved in selling items that claimed to capture the "holy light" of religious relics (mirrors: he sold mirrors, but apparently they didn't know any better in 1439). He was losing some money in the holy light business, so he started inventing the printing press. This eventually allowed for the production of flyers, flyers, posters, and more, which became the first form of billboards.

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Lithography comes of age in the 1790s

In addition to print, billboards feature art. This aspect of the medium became transferable in the 1790s, when Alois Senefelder invented lithography, a kind ofa19th century copier that allowed the reproduction of color illustrations.

This innovation also generated controversy. Art critics, the seemingly snobs of any century, dismissed the idea that art could be so easily reproduced. Is it over therecriticized the conceptand everyone who used it.

The invention of printing and lithography made copying easier. This prompted companies to print advertisements for their products. But what to do with them? Placing an ad in the newspaper was prohibitive for many. In the meantime, the price was right to pin these flyers to fence posts and house walls (possiblyEarly form of wild mail🇧🇷 I mean, it was free.

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What a Circus: Why P.T. Barnum DID NOT invent the billboard

We finally get to the part of the preliminary story that was left out of The Greatest Showman. Although PT Barnum was not the originator of the concept, he was actually a circus man who brought the practice into the mainstream.

To advertise a circus, Jared Bell was the first to put up a billboard in 1835. These large and colorful billboards caught people's attention. Seeing how well it was working, Barnum looked for advertising spaces in other cities before his circus arrived, causing a stir among his traveling troupe.

Growing pains as the outdoor industry grows

After that millennial period, outdoor advertising in the United States took off quickly. In 1867, companies began renting advertising space. In three years, more than 300 sign painters and banner makers emerged. In postwar America, where all sides still suspected the armistice, billboards became a trusted industry.

In 1872, a group in St. Louis formed the International Bill Sign Association of North America. A pamphlet entitled "The Cartel" published in 1910 describes in detail how the modern industry came about. This, too, was not without discussion. Many people worried about what they saw as the accumulated waste of the Golden Age.

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In 1887, the New York Star wrote against the "thousands of tons of paper and oceans of pulp expended in decorating billboards", noting "to successfully perpetuate the business of erecting billboards in every large city in the United States". States need to invest significant capital”.

The star estimates that $2 million is invested in the industry across the country each year, with $150,000 in New York. The newspaper claimed that between 50 and 100 men posted leaflets around the city, which was approximately 10 million leaflets a week in high season. (The newspaper may have overestimated...)

So many billboard groups in the industry

By 1891, many states had established their own billboard organizations, and by 1900, a more standardized physical structure for billboards had emerged.

Interestingly, this did away with some of the environmental issues that the New York Star had complained about over a decade earlier. Standardized banner sizes allowed companies to place the same ads in many different places. They were easier to plan and didn't require as much staff.

During this time, big names like Coca-Cola and Kellogg's made billboards an integral part of their national marketing plans. In just 12 years, most cities had outdoor advertising nationwide.

Of course, this wouldn't be the media industry without some intrigue. Two of the first outdoor advertising agencies, The Fulton Group and Cusack Co., merged to form the General Outdoor Advertising Company (GOAC) in 1925.


In 1950, the US Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against GOAC, claiming that it operated a monopoly. That same year, the department also took action against the Outdoor Advertising Association of America for alleged price fixing.

The development of the modern billboard industry

By 1955, annual billboard sales across the country had surpassed $100 million. Three years later, the first round of federal legislation was passed providing incentives for statewide control of billboards along highways. It was the start of a decades-long tug-of-war between anti-billboard groups and the industry. It still pops up from time to time, and four states have banned billboards altogether. We say: Your loss.

The industry received a major boost in the 1970s when advertising of tobacco products in broadcast media was banned. Guess who has a case of advertising money? Billboards along with magazines and newspapers. However, it didn't last. In 1999, Big Tobacco and the Attorneys General banned tobacco advertising on outdoor properties as part of an ongoing legal battle.

Around the turn of the century, digital billboards were introduced across the country and switched to outdoor ratings to measure how many people saw the advertisements.

What does the future hold?We have our own it too. It's been a wild ride and probably won't get tamed anymore.

written by Gino Sesto

Gino Sesto is the founder of DASH TWO, an outdoor and digital advertising agency based in Culver City, California. He has extensive experience and knowledge of the advertising industry, spanning all formats from traditional media to digital media. Gino has over 25 years of experience and has helped release numerous #1 records including Bone Thugs N Harmony, The Offspring, Eminem, Jay-Z and more. Over the past 3 years, Gino has grown DASH TWO from 5 employees to over 20 employees and has expanded the company by opening an office in Nashville, TN. Outside of DASH TWO, Gino is also an avid Certified Flight Instructor and an active member of AOPA and The Entrepreneur Organization.

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What is the brief history of billboard advertising? ›

The first proper billboards were invented in the 1830s by Jared Bell in America. He wanted to advertise a circus and put up a large and colourful billboard in 1835. P.T. Barnum saw the benefits of this advertising medium, and also followed suit.

What is the history of outdoor advertising? ›

In 1850, exterior advertising was first used on street railways. The earliest recorded leasings of billboard occurred in 1867. By 1870 nearly 300 small sign-painting and bill posting companies were in operation. In 1872, the International Bill Posters' Association of North America was formed in St.

What is the history of Ooh? ›

OOH has its origins in Egypt. Thousands of years ago they used tall stone obelisks to publicize laws and treaties. However, it was the invention of lithographic print in the 1400s that provided the platform for the development of the modern form of OOH.

When did billboards become a thing? ›

1889 – The world's first 24-sheet billboard was displayed at the Paris Exposition and later at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The format was quickly adopted for various types of advertising, especially for circuses, traveling shows, and movies.

What is the story behind 3 billboards? ›

The three billboards McDonagh spotted outside of Texas are related to the unsolved murder of Katherine “Kathy” Page. A mother of two, Page was found dead on May 14, 1991, in the early dawn when Vidor, Texas police discovered a wrecked car.

How did billboard start? ›

In October 1938, a review list "The Week's Best Records" was retitled "The Billboard Record Buying Guide" by incorporating airplay and sheet music sales, which would eventually become the first trade survey of record popularity.


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