In 1927, Henry Ford changed the way we got from point A to point B. We replaced the horse and carriage with the Model A and then we quickly found a way to turn these metal contraptions into a new way to express our opinions. Henry Ford also did something else for us with the automobile. He put them out for thousands of people to purchase and as people began to have accidents, he added the bumper to provide some protection to the front and back of the car. Combine this bumper with America’s desire for free speech and people found a new way to advertise their products and ideas.
The first bumper “stickers” were made of cardboard and metal. These were then connected by wire and string. In fact, they looked more like a license plate than a sticker. Nevertheless, these were the forerunners of bumper stickers, as we know them today.
A change to the way bumper stickers were made would come later. In the 1930’s, Forest P. Gill worked for the Crawford Manufacturing Company in Kansas City, Missouri. The company had been making canvas items such as seat and tire covers. The canvas was a sturdy material that was also very versatile, as it could be printed on with ink through silkscreening. These inks were different from the dyes that had been used in the past, as the dyes would fade or run in the sunlight or rain. As a result, the canvas turned out to be an excellent option for printed advertisements for the outdoors. Soon, canvas was used for outdoor advertisements on the canvas awnings that went over store windows and later they were used for covering spare tires and turning those into advertisements as well.
After the Crawford Manufacturing Company went out of business, Gill chose to go into business for himself. Gill received some printing equipment from his ex-employer and began a printing business in the basement of his home in 1934.
Gill struggled to make ends meet and printed everything from bumper signs to can labels. The prints were treated with chemicals to keep them from running and to withstand the weather. As Gill’s operation grew, he had to hire employees. Gill moved out of the basement to 906 Central in Kansas City. The shop was right down the block from the Hotel Savoy, where Harry Truman would lunch at the Savoy Grill.
Later in 1946, a new trend in inks and dyes came about. The Switzer Brother’s Inc. located in Cleveland, Ohio created these. They introduced new colors that were called DayGlo because of their bright, glowing appearance during the day. Gill soon began experimenting with these new inks and creating signs with them. These inks were very eye catching and advertisers wanted to use them to draw more attention.
At the same time, another revelation was being created. This revelation was a new sticky-backed paper that became available to commercial printers. On the back of these papers, a backing could be pulled off and the paper could then be stuck to a smooth surface. Up to that point, silk screen stickers had only be used with water-activated gum papers, but these couldn’t hold up in weather and fell apart over time.
Elsewhere in Kansas City, a printer told Gill about a company that used independent salesmen to advertise products that were sold in regional territories by traveling salesman door to door. Gill contacted the Nationwide Advertising Specialty Company located in Arlington, Texas. The company helped Gill to create an ad that would advertise bumper stickers to the sales reps who could then sell them to various places, such as tourist destinations. The bumper sticker quickly became the perfect souvenir as people purchased cars after the war.
The first bumper stickers were printed on blue and black backgrounds. The ink was fluorescent and they brightly announced where the family had been vacationing. They soon helped to spread the word about tourist destinations located across the country. To advertise himself, Gill placed the name of his company on the very bottom of the bumper stickers he printed. This launched a product that would soon become part of our democracy and the become an symbol of the first amendment.