The Maxwell Collection at Duke
David C. Maxwell, son of founder R. C. Maxwell, donated the company's extensive photograph collection — along with early financial records, house advertisements and several hundred documents — to Duke University beginning in 1996. The Maxwell Collection presents a uniquely comprehensive record of regional outdoor advertising over a period of nearly 80 years. Duke is extremely grateful to Mr. Maxwell for this gift and also for financial support of this fine collection.
The Maxwell photographs are arranged chronologically by a numerical system devised by the company. Preservation and indexing work is underway as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant generously awarded to the Hartman Center in 2000 for the arranging and describing of 11 Outdoor Advertising collections.
For additional information about the outdoor advertising collections at Duke, contact the Hartman Center.
A Capsule History of the Company
The R. C. Maxwell Company was founded by Robert Chester Maxwell in 1894. In the late 19th century, railroads were the primary means of travel and commerce, so Mr. Maxwell built "bill-boards," structures of wooden boards on which printed advertising bills were posted, to be seen by those riding the steel rails.
With the advent of the automobile, those rail travelers started driving along the growing network of roads and highways, and the company began building the now familiar roadside billboards to reach them.
For more than one hundred years, billboards have informed and entertained motorists and today are a unique part of American culture. With the development of incandescent lights, electric display signs were added to the company's repertoire. Mr. Maxwell, seeing great possibilities in these "spectaculars," established the Electric Sign Manufacturing Plant in Atlantic City. In the 1920s he erected such landmarks as the giant 50-foot Colgate thermometer (the world's largest) and a unique all-neon display on the roof of the Atlantic City Million Dollar Pier that featured four horses racing around a track with a random winner every three minutes.
As media have evolved and changed in the course of the 20th century, the R. C. Maxwell Company, now headquartered in Trenton, N.J., continues to serve the advertising industry in new ways.
Take a peak inside R. C. Maxwell Company's Photograph Collection
Billed as "the worlds largest and most beautiful spectacular electric display" when it was built in 1926, this sign by the R. C. Maxwell Company was the height of high technology in its day. It was located on the Steeplechase Pier at Pennsylvania Avenue and Boardwalk in Atlantic City. In a 75-second cycle, the 13,000 bulbs illuminated in 27-colored steps and finished in a burst of gold and white before fading out to begin again.
The Miss America Pageant has been a unique tradition in Atlantic City since 1932. The contestants would parade along the boardwalk during the pageant week, often in floats constructed by the R. C. Maxwell Company.
Wall signs like these were common on city streets early in this century. Today, only faded ghosts remain.