The history of billboard advertising is intertwined with at least two other histories: 1) the history of lithography, and 2) the more general history of outdoor advertising.
Lithography is a method of printing that dates back to the 1790s, and it involves creating a printed image by rolling ink over a surface that absorbs ink only in ink-absorbent areas (by taking advantage of how oil and water repel each other). Lithography is central to the history of billboard advertising because it made the mass production of illustrated posters possible.
Prior to the invention of lithography, merchants had long painted posters and signage and hung them on walls and fences to advertise the goods and services they offered. All of this advertisement was done locally. But at the turn of the nineteenth century, businesses were already experimenting with using the power of lithography to mass produce posters for advertising purposes.
Circuses were the first major businesses to take advantage of outdoor advertising. In 1835, we saw the first instance of large scale mass printing when Jared Bell began printing circus posters in New York. You could call this the first documented use of billboard advertising. These first large scale, 9-foot-by-6-foot ads showcased “The Great Wallace Shows” and featured imagery of the many spectacles you would find there. And by 1850, mass produced outdoor advertising was starting to be used on street railways.
The 1860s saw a major revolution in outdoor advertising, as in the mid-1850s it became possible for companies to purchase outdoor advertising space. In 1872, the International Bill Posters Association of North America was formed in St. Louis as a billboard lobbying group. Then in 1891 the Associated Bill Posters’ Association of the U.S. and Canada was formed in Chicago. The year 1889 saw the world’s first 24 sheet billboard displayed at the Paris Exposition, and four years later 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 all sorts of industries—especially in the entertainment industry.
The world of outdoor advertising would soon see a major shift when the Model T was introduced to the U.S. in 1908, as outdoor advertising alongside major roadways would soon become a hot commodity. By this point, a standardized billboard structure had been established in America, and major companies like Palmolive, Kellogg’s, and Coca-Cola could create ads and purchase ad space knowing that their ads would suit billboards across the country. The following decades saw increased standardization in the world of billboard advertising, as well as the cropping up of multiple outdoor advertising companies.
Now billboard advertising involves a wide variety of materials and printing methods, and billboards are even moving in the direction of digital. So at least for the time being, it appears that even as digital technology and advertising techniques advances, billboard advertising is here to stay.