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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Mancuso

How the Billboard Industry Came to Be

Before 14 foot-high billboards towered over highways, advertisers created posters as large as their printers could handle. Read on to learn more about the history of the billboard industry!

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A man named Jared Bell is credited with printing the first-ever billboard in 1835. His 9 ft x 6 ft ads showcased the “Great Wallace Shows” and the many spectacles they featured. While stunning and ornate, Jared Bell’s designs would not meet today’s creative standards. Imagine trying to read that from a highway?

The 1860s saw a major revolution in outdoor advertising, as it recently became possible for companies to purchase space for their signs. In 1872, the International Bill Posters Association of North America was formed in St. Louis as a billboard lobbying group.

Their initial charter set out the ethical standards of the organization: “to regulate a uniform scale of posting prices, and to act as a watchdog against the ‘malicious covering of bills.’” Their goal was to upgrade and establish uniform and fair policies for outdoor advertising. It was the first national advertising association in the U.S.

In 1891, the Associated Bill Posters’ Association of the U.S. and Canada was formed in Chicago. A few years later, the world’s first 24 sheet billboard was displayed at the Paris Exposition. Then, a large-scale poster of the same format was displayed at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This format was soon adopted and used for advertising in many industries—especially entertainment.

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The outdoor advertising industry would see its biggest revolution in 1908 when the Model T was introduced to the United States. Billboards would soon be seen alongside major roadways, as a standardized structure had been established for mass production.

Photo Credit: OAAA

Major companies like Palmolive, Kellogg’s, and Coca-Cola jumped on the chance to create and purchase ad space, knowing they would be seen on massive signs across the country. The following decades saw increased standardization in the world of billboard advertising and the cropping up of multiple outdoor advertising companies.

Learn more about the history of billboards on our Instagram!

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