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The Unique History of Bumper Stickers

bumper sticker

Bumper stickers. Some people love them, some people loathe them. But nobody can argue that they’re everywhere.

So how did these ubiquitous pieces of advertising come about? And how have they managed to last the test of time? Let’s take a look.

The Bumper

The idea of using a vehicle for advertisement was around before the automobile was even invented. In the horse-and-buggy days, it was common for people to adorn horsefly nets with advertising slogans.

The trend continued when automobiles came around. But almost all early cars lacked bumpers. The safety feature wasn’t widely adopted until 1927, when Ford released the Model A. Drivers decorated their bumpers with homemade signs. But these were usually made of cardboard or metal and attached using wire. Needless to say, they didn’t last very long.

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The Sticker

The bumper sticker as we know it today can be traced back to a screen printer in Kansas City, Mo. named Forrest P. Gill. In the 1940s, Gill found himself with a surplus of two wartime technologies: adhesive-backed paper and fluorescent paint. He combined the two and the bumper sticker was born. His new creation was a significant improvement over handmade signs that fell off cars or easily wore down.

The first early adopters of bumper stickers were tourist sites. Instead of having a single sign on the side of the road, destinations now had countless ads traveling across the country. Gill’s first large volume request was 25,000 bumper stickers for Marine Gardens in Clearwater, Fl. (The company Gill founded is still around today and still selling bumper stickers.)

The popularity of bumper stickers took a major step forward during the 1952 presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. It was the first election to include the use of bumper stickers as advertising materials. They have since been used in every U.S. presidential election. To this day, political advertising remains a mainstay use of bumper stickers.

Bumper Stickers Today

Bumper stickers have evolved over the years to include decals and placards. The most famous of the latter is the “Baby on Board” sign. Interestingly enough, the ubiquitous sign was developed and sold by a man without children.

In 1984, Massachusetts businessman Michael Lerner was asked by a friend for advice on how to market the signs. Lerner wasn’t a father but he had recently endured a harrowing experience driving his young nephew. “People were tailgating me and cutting me off,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “For the first time, I felt like a parent feels when they have a kid in the car.”

Lerner tweaked the design, creating the now-famous black-and-yellow diamond sign. “Baby on Board” was an immediate hit. Less than a year after hitting the market, Lerner had sold 3 million signs.

“Baby on Board” isn’t the only popular sign or sticker to last the test of time. Others are religious (the ichthys, “Coexist”), familial (“My Child is an Honor Student,” the stick figure family), and safety related (“Slow Down, Move Over,” “School’s Open – Drive Carefully”).

Bumper sticker
Kelly Sims / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

No Laughing Matter

As innocent as bumper stickers can be, they have not been without their fair share of controversy. In fact, in 1991, they were the topic of a legal case that reached the Georgia Supreme Court.

In Cunningham v. the State, a Georgia resident had been caught having a bumper sticker on his car that contained an expletive. He was charged with violating a state law that prohibited car owners from attaching “any sticker, decal, emblem, or other device containing profane or lewd words.” The owner argued this law was unconstitutional. The court agreed, stating that the law violated the 1st and 14th Amendments. Thus, the humble bumper sticker became protected by freedom of speech.

A 2008 study by Colorado State University found that car owners with bumper stickers or window decals tend to be more aggressive drivers. Researchers also discovered the message of the sticker was irrelevant. A driver with a “Peace and Love” sticker was as likely to be an aggressive driver than one with a more hostile sticker.

Which bumper stickers do you see most often? Which ones do you like and which are you tired of? Let us know in the comments below!


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82 Thoughts on “The Unique History of Bumper Stickers

  1. I drive a company car so no bumper stickers. Used to have an Obama sticker and a guy on interstate gave me the finger. It’s frightening that people feel so threatened by my free speech expression and who is he to impose his will on me? Maybe he should visit North Korea and try to express his sentiments. Bet there’s no bumper stickers in North Korea.

  2. Only love beats milk. Saw this , Coolidge Corner, Brookline MA, 1970. Plain bumper sticker, no attribution to any organization.

  3. 2 that I have seen and have stayed in my brain are:
    ‘Ever stop to think and forget to start again?’
    ‘Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons… for you are crunchy and good with Ketchup’

  4. When I was living in Stamford, CT, I always wanted a bumper sticker that said “Honk If You’re Rude”, but the closest thing I could find was “Honk If You’re Stupid”. I had that on my car until it got totalled. Drivers would incessantly honk their horns outside my apartment building at all hours of the night for no legitimate reason. Now that I live in Vermont, the only people who honk their horns are rude people from out of state.

  5. While I can enjoy a witty bumper sticker, I stopped putting them on my car when a college buddy of mine explained that unless it is a totally neutral concept (and if that is the case, why bother?), then no matter what idea you are espousing, there is always going to be someone with an opposing point of view, even if it is only that you don’t care about anyone else’s (“No one cares who you voted for.”). And therein is the potential for your car getting vandalized. Is expressing your political persuasion REALLY worth the risk of getting your car keyed or worse?

  6. Never saw a bumper sticker in Europe where I grew up, just the national decals which we needed when travelling out of the country. I now have those on my car here, so we can connect with others from the old country.

  7. I like “hang up and drive.” But I only use decals, because bumper stickers are too hard to get off!

    The comment about drivers with bumper stickers being more aggressive reminds me of a joke about a woman who was pulled over for yelling and making obscene gestures at other drivers. The cop who asked for her license and registration said, “Oh, is this your car? When I saw the ‘Jesus saves’ bumper sticker and the ‘Choose Life’ plates, and saw how you were treating other drivers, I figured the car must be stolen.”

  8. Up in Maine, where braking for a 1 ton moose in the road could save your life, there is this dry humorous version.. – Brake for Moose, it could be my Wife.

  9. I personally like the sarcastic ones such as My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student and My Other Bumper Sticker is also Tolerant and Condescending. I don’t have bumper stickers on my car, though I’ve often considered printing one up that says Nobody Cares Who You Voted For.

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