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The History of Roadside Billboard Advertising

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How our highways became cluttered with giant signs

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You might not realize it because you’ve probably tuned them out with how pervasive they are, but roadside billboards are everywhere. Everywhere. Drive through any major state and you’re bound to see dozens of signs for injury lawyers, fast food joints, and banks.

Known as hoarding in the UK, billboards are an eye-grabbing way of getting your business noticed. But how did our highways become cluttered with these peculiar massive pieces of advertisement art?

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Hate Seeing Billboards? Blame the Circus

While early advertisement signs can be traced back centuries ago, billboards—known by their full name, billing boards—began their development in the early 1800s. With the invention of mass printing, production of poster-type documents led to public flyers and declarations promoting commercial, local, and government entities. Yet, most outdoor advertisements didn’t fare well against exposure to the weather; plus, with few actual main roads across the country, most signs stayed within towns.

We actually have circuses to thank for the development of large-scale billboards, as these traveling troupes innovated new ways of outdoor mass marketing. With the invention of large-format lithography in New York, circuses were ordering and posting mass-produced flyers in larger and larger sizes.

A couple decades later, space on billboard slots began being offered for rental, followed by an official lobbying association overseeing them. With the invention of the automobile in the turn of the 20th century, billboard presence soared exponentially due to standardization, eventually leading to the Highway Beautification Act in 1965 that limited their pervasiveness.

Since then, countless innovations have been made to billboards, including rotating signs, digital displays, elements of 3D sculptures, scented billboards, and even interactive ones.

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Source: Outdoor Advertising Association of America