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Roadside America, Then and Now

New Digital Collection Documents the History of Outdoor Advertising

See Rock City. Eat Mor Chikin. Exit Here. 

Like them or not, billboards are part of the American landscape. They tell us where to fill up on gas, local peaches, and pecan logs. They encourage us to try new products. They display photos of wanted criminals and missing persons. They educate, entertain, and frustrate us, cluttering up the landscape and guiding us to fresh coffee and clean restrooms. Unavoidable as they are, they also provide a fascinating window on American popular culture.

Now more than 27,000 images of billboards and other outdoor advertisements have been digitized and made available online by Duke University Libraries. The new digital collection, ROAD 2.0, brings together a vast collection of historical advertising images from the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Marketing & Advertising History, part of Duke’s Special Collections Library. The images, most of them taken between the 1930s and 1980s, include not only billboards but also wall paintings, electric “spectaculars” (such as the neon signs New York’s Times Square), bus shelters, taxi displays, and behind-the-scenes shots of outdoor ads under construction and sign painters at work.

In addition to their research value to scholars of advertising history, cultural studies, graphic design, and consumer trends, many of the outdoor advertisements are visually striking and whimsical, making the newly digitized collection a pleasure to browse.

One billboard from the 1980s features Smokey the Bear, the mascot of the U.S. Forest Service. Half the sign appears to have burned away, revealing the metal structure underneath. “Forest fires burn more than trees,” Smokey says. Other signs in the collection are more enigmatic, like an early 1970s advertisement for First National Bank of Arizona. It depicts two stereotypical hippies raising their fingers in a peace sign next to the words, “Love… try some on your parents.” The implied message or financial service being offered is unclear.

The images and documents in the online collection are both national and local in scope, covering campaigns for well-known brands as well as local mom and pop businesses. The collection also documents the interesting evolution of the outdoor advertising medium. What started as a specialized format limited to highly skilled sign painters and small family-owned companies has become dominated by national conglomerates who communicate their messages through digital signboards and computer generated images. Paint has given way to pixels, and revenue from outdoor advertising is one of the highest growing segments of the advertising industry today.

In 2005, Duke University Libraries created the first Resource of Outdoor Advertising Descriptions (ROAD) database, an NEH grant-funded project to provide access to Duke’s vast collection of outdoor advertising material. But the original ROAD database did not include images, only descriptive information. ROAD 2.0 takes up where the previous project left off, although its 27,000 images represent only about a quarter of the total collection. 

The images for ROAD 2.0 were digitized with the assistance of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Most of them come from the papers of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the primary professional organization for the modern outdoor advertising industry since 1891. (For complete descriptions of the Hartman Center’s outdoor advertising collections, visit the Center’s website.)

The Hartman Center, part of Duke’s Special Collections Library, is one of the foremost resources for the documentation and study of advertising history in the world. Its collections include the archives of advertising agencies and trade organizations, as well as the papers of industry executives and private collectors.

Through its active program of class visits, exhibitions, digitization, and public events, the Duke Special Collections Library supports the educational, research, and service mission of Duke University. By preserving and promoting the use of historical and cultural documentation in many forms, it facilitates understanding and appreciation for the range of human experience.

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Posted 15 July 2011

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Last modified July 15, 2011 1:02:55 PM EDT