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The Unique History of Bumper Stickers

Created in a small screen printing office in Kansas City, bumper stickers quickly took over the country's roadways and have remained a popular trend to this day.

bumper sticker

Josh Thompson / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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!

Comments
  • David C.

    Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle Columnist (“Bagdad by the Bay”) used to call them Bumper Snickers.

  • Philip S.

    Back in the gas shortage years in the early ’70s, there was Eat More Beans, America Needs The Gas. And on a more political side, when I first went to college in 1971 when America Love It Or Leave It was popular, I saw America Change It Or Lose It. Relevant 50 years later?

  • John G.

    My favorite is: Jesus Saves Espo scores on the rebound! (This is in reference to the Boston Bruins in the early 1970’s)

  • Mary Susan W.

    I don’t like to clutter up my vehicle with bumper stickers..actually,the only one I have is one from aaa that I get every year with my membership!

  • Kathy A.

    The company Mr. Gill founded exists today as Gill Studios in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. I have been placing orders for bumper stickers, signs, lapel stickers, magnets, etc. since 1995. They are fantastic people to work with, the quality of their products is unmatched and they are a proud union company as is my own.

    • Maggie M.

      Hi Kathy! Thank you for your added insight into the company! Great to know they have more to offer than bumper stickers. – MM

  • Grace C.

    If You Can Read This You’re Too Close is my favorite. There’s lots of drivers who will almost climb over the car in front of them. I promise I’ll pull over as fast as I can. Grace, Mystic CT

  • Megan R.

    Best one I’ve seen is “Dogs come when you call them – Cats have answering machines”

  • Liza C.

    And then there was the infamous “S#!T Happens”. My dad reprimanded me about this one in the 80’s.

  • Robert C.

    I have only 1 bumper sticker on my care – EVER. It shows the “Hi Neighbor” from the Narragansett Brewery, originally manufactured outside of Providence RI. R.I.ers know Gansetts as much as they know Coffee Milk, Dels Lemonade, and NY System hot weiners..

  • Ann Marie O.

    A co-worker in a company I worked for years ago had a bumper sticker on his car that is an all-time favorite of mine: “I feel much better now that I’ve given up hope”.

    • Maggie M.

      Hi Ann Marie! That has to be a qualification for a bumper sticker, memorable years later! Thanks! -MM

  • Steven G.

    I once made my own bumper sticker when I worked in a print shop, after seeing one of those ubiquitous “This car climbed Mt. Washington” stickers. I changed the name of the mountain so that it said “This car climbed Mt. Everest,” with the words superimposed over a picture of that mountain. It drew a lot of attention, most of it positive.

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