Outdoor, or Out-of-Home, advertising is considered the oldest form of advertising, dating back to sales messages chiseled on stone tablets by Egyptian merchants who placed them along public roadways. The development of paper and the printing press made billposting possible in Europe after about 1500. Lithography, a printing method developed in the 19th century, expanded the creative possibilities of advertising design. Posting "bills" on wooden boards in the late 19th century led to the birth of the term "billboard." Today the out-of-home category includes not only the billboard, but also "car cards" in public transportation; in-store displays; and displays in airports, sports arenas, transit shelters, and ski areas, among other sites. The Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), the industry trade organization, has roots in an association founded in 1891. The OAAA has saved a great deal of documentation of its work and that of several member companies, providing an in-depth look at the outdoor industry for over 100 years.
Like all advertising, outdoor has been a phenomenon familiar to everyone. Whether we like it or despise it, we do recognize it and respond to it. It is part of business — and part of our culture — and a very ephemeral part at that. Preserving a comprehensive record of outdoor advertising is essential to documenting and understanding the 20th century.
To assist in this preservation and access, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) generously awarded the Hartman Center in 2000 a grant of over $171,000 to organize and describe eleven collections dealing with Outdoor Advertising. The NEH grant project — "Art and Commerce by the Side of the Road" — is scheduled to be completed by Spring 2003. After that time, descriptions of all collections will be available online in the form of finding aids on the Duke David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library website.
Duke has built a national and international reputation for the strength of its resources for studying advertising, sales, and marketing history since acquiring the J. Walter Thompson Company advertising agency archives in 1987. Duke received the OAAA Archives as a gift from OAAA in late 1996. This massive collection (672 shelf feet!) had been on deposit at Fairleigh Dickinson University since 1972, but FDU no longer was able to maintain the material. FDU also deposited a number of smaller collections of individuals and companies related to outdoor advertising. A complete list of outdoor advertising collections at the Hartman Center is available.
There are over 100,000 slides of billboards and thousands of photographs. The collection also includes hundreds of books and periodicals on topics related to poster art, typography, billboard architecture and lighting, highway zoning and safety, roadway beautification, and many related themes. The OAAA files from the 1920s and after document the internal workings of the association and the many legal and business issues it has dealt with. The R.C. Maxwell Company Collection alone contains over 10,000 photos of urban and rural scenes that show billboards from the 1910s to 1950s. The papers of John E. Brennan document audience remembrance of billboards from the 1940s to 1960s in U.S. cities.
John Paver's papers include his writings and speeches on poster topics in the U.S. and abroad.The Archives also contains films and filmstrips, presentation materials, legislative documents, original artworks, and yes, several dozen huge, multi-sheet paper billboards from the 1920s and 1930s. Though much work remains to be done to organize and describe the office files, a great deal of information and thousands of books and images are available for study right now.
Students studying many aspects of business and culture will find fascinating material here. Outdoor advertising illuminates marketing techniques used over the span of the 20th century. It showcases fine commercial artists. Billboards show the advertising history of many product categories and illustrate concise, creative use of language. And much, much more.
Students are welcome to visit Duke or to make inquiries by mail, fax, or e-mail. Faculty, Graduate Students, and Independent Scholars who wish to make extended use of the collections may consider applying for the Hartman Center's annual travel grants.
Outdoor companies and advertising agencies will find rich resources for new business presentations, client relations, and creative work in these vast files. Advertisers can retrieve examples of their earlier advertising designs — or those of competitors. Movie studios regularly seek images of old billboards to enhance the period look of their feature films. The Hartman Center will respond to information requests from businesses on a fee basis, with all fees going toward support of the Center's advertising collections.
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