In South Dakota, Wall Drug billboard ads tout “Free Ice Water” while all over the South, Stuckey’s offers pecan log rolls and other fine pecan candies in just 20…10… 5… 2 miles and you’re there! In Arizona, they ask if you’ve seen “the Thing?” while billboards outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, used to promise “A. Lincoln Speaks” at the now defunct Gettysburg Civil War Wax Museum.
Sure, billboards like these are the bait that often lures us into kitschy tourist traps, but since we absolutely love kitschy tourist traps, we’re hooked! In the end, however, those billboards do exactly what they’re supposed to do – catch your attention and make you think about its message while you’re driving by at high speeds.
Signs of the Times
They didn’t start out that way, however. Used as far back as the 1830s in America, early billboards were generally large posters painted or glued on the sides of buildings that mostly advertised local merchants and their wares which included everything from horse blankets to rheumatism pills. However, in 1835, it was Jared Bell who really launched the use of billboards as we know them today with his 50-foot square, vividly and colorfully illustrated circus posters that set the bar high for the billboard’s use as a bombastic advertising medium.
In 1872, the billboard lobbying group known as the International Bill Posters Association of North America was founded, and America’s first 24-sheet billboard was presented at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Soon after, this new medium would be used to advertise circuses, traveling shows, and the newly invented moving pictures.
Thanks to a standardized billboard structure being established in 1900, the U.S. saw a huge boom in national billboard advertising campaigns with companies like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Palmolive advertising from coast-to-coast. Eight years later, Henry Ford would introduce the Model T automobile to America, and with more people being able to afford a car of their own, the number of people using highways increased, thus roadside billboards also increased at the same time.
Especially while driving long-distances, motorists usually don’t have much to occupy their minds, even today, so some of the most prominent billboards are placed along the highway. Back then, they were often the only way a traveler knew where to find something to eat, where to gas up, or where to rest their head for the night. As a result, many signs advertised local restaurants and shops in the coming miles, and were crucial to drawing business in small towns.
Nearly all of the billboards from this era were painted in large studios. First, the image was projected onto a series of paper panels where line drawings were made. Pounce wheels were then used to trace over the lines, which left small holes in the paper. Then the small holes were pounced, meaning patted with a chalked filled pounce bag that left an outline of what the artist was to paint. Finally, the artist painted the images using oil paints and even went on site to touch up the billboard along its seams and borders once it was installed. Incidentally, hand painting is still in use today when there are one or two signs that need to be painted.
Billboards for Miles
Advertising dominated the billboard industry and one of the earliest successful campaigns used to both entertain motorist and advertise to them at the same time were the popular Burma Shave brushless shaving cream advertisements. Made popular between 1925 and 1963, the smaller multiple billboards captured the traveler’s attention by making them wait for the punch line at the end with rhymes like:
NO LADY LIKES
Another example of using multiple billboards to advertise a business is Wall Drug. Earning most if it’s fame from self-promotion, Wall Drug has become a popular destination for many road trippers thanks to erecting some of their first billboards advertising “free ice water” in 1936. Even now, in 2020, billboards advertising the establishment can be seen for hundreds of miles away mostly along Interstate 90 from Minnesota to Billings, Montana with one of the farthest away claiming that its “only 827 miles to Wall Drug, with FREE ice water.” Most of the signs were painted by Philip, South Dakota, billboard artists Dobby Hansen and Barry Knutson.
The American roadside icon Stuckey’s was another business that was one of the first to use this technique was. At one time, Stuckey’s had over 6,000 signs advertising their famous pecan log rolls and other fine pecan candies along with gas and clean restrooms, sometimes having up to fifty signs for each store. Stuckey’s would usually start out 50 miles in each direction from the store in ten mile increments until it reached 25 when it would go to five mile increments, then one mile increments starting at five miles then feet after one mile until you were there. Many also featured a sign not far from Stuckey’s that said something like “You just missed it!” or “You just passed…Stuckey’s” in case you had second thoughts and wanted to turn around before you had gone too far and really wanted that pecan log roll.
Much like the Burma Shave, Wall Drug, and Stuckey’s, South of the Border and its billboard advertising campaign have also entered American roadside history, its sombrero-shaped tower a mecca for adventurous road trippers from all over the world.
Started by Alan Schafer in 1950, South of the Border originally was a beer stand that was located just south of the North Carolina border near Dillon, South Carolina. Running with the whole “south of the border” idea, Schafer soon developed the place into a restaurant, motel and a campy Mexico-themed amusement park by the mid-1960s. As part of South of the Border’s billboard marketing strategy, Mr. Shafer often designed them himself. In their heyday, signs with witty sayings like “Chili Today. Hot Tamale.” and “Landmark for Bored Yankees!” dotted Interstate 95 as far away as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the north and Miami, Florida in the South.
As a result of this kind of multiple advertising and due to the lack of regulations of billboards along the interstate highways, the billboard industry flourished. However, in 1965 that was about to change.
The Highway Beautification Act
Supported by First Lady Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, the Highway Beautification Act was passed in 1965, setting limitations on the number of billboards that could be placed along highways, as well as setting regulations on factors such as size, spacing, and lighting. While this didn’t put an end to the use of billboards, it forced advertisers such as Wall Drug, South of the Border, and Stuckey’s to abide by the regulations regarding spacing, size and lightning. As a result, many had to forgo the advertising of their location from hundreds of miles away, or every 10 miles and the like.
However, you can find fine examples of these billboards still in use by South of the Border, Wall Drug, and of course, Stuckey’s all across America. In fact, billboards and other outdoor advertising make up 66% of today’s advertising market in the U.S. Much advancement has also been made in billboard design such as the use of modern technology in making digital billboards.
In North Carolina, advertisers even came up with a “scented” billboard featuring a piece of steak on a fork that wafted the smell of black pepper and charcoal from the base of a sign. So, who knows? Maybe you’ll be driving past a Stuckey’s sign one day and swear you can smell a hot cup of coffee and a warm Stuckey’s pecan roll waiting for you just 10 miles… 5 miles… 200 feet… and you’re there!
Until then, you can follow the signs or find one of the many Stuckey’s locations near you on our website. And if you still have miles and miles to drive to the nearest Stuckey’s, we’ll be more than happy to find you and deliver our fine pecan candies and other Stuckey’s merchandise straight to your door. For more information, visit us at stuckeys.com today.
Whether your next road trip is by car or by rail, it’s not really a road trip without taking Stuckey’s along. From our world famous Stuckey’s Pecan Log Rolls to our mouthwatering Hunkey Dorey, Stuckey’s has all the road trips snacks you’ll need to get you where you’re going.
For all of the pecany good treats and cool merch you’ll need for your next big road adventure, browse our online store now!
Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!