It started simply enough, a hundred years ago. Americans bought cars. Americans loved cars. And Americans loved politics. So, it seemed almost inevitable that automobiles became rolling billboards for their owners’ favorite candidates. Representatives cheerfully provided different auto accessories, which became a favorite method for taking the campaign on the road.
Early in automotive history, innovative politicos adapted campaign window decals. By the 1920s, drivers pasted them on the insides of windshields, protecting the paper label from rain and dirt. Plastering the windshields with paper was “so obviously unsafe,” said one observer, “that it is in disfavor with all but the most inveterate touring magpies.” Die-hard decal fans used them for years—Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana gave them away during her 1940 campaign.
Cars became even more popular as the decades rolled by, and sported even more ingenious (and weather-ready) congressional campaign ornaments. With the advent of license plates, drivers could accessorize them with bits of stamped-out metal printed with candidates’ slogans. Even better, in states that mandated only a rear plate, Representatives like Charlie Halleck of Illinois could hand out bright red and white tin placards, with holes ready-drilled, to his supporters.
No one knows when the first political sign was attached to a car bumper, but the location stuck. The sturdy strip of metal was a perfect spot for a mini-poster. It put the sign in full view of the motoring public but didn't block anyone's view of the road. Early cardboard signs, waxed or varnished to weatherproof them, clung to rear bumpers with twine or wire. Swooping chrome car designs of the post-World War II era made it hard to worm a cord around the bumper, and drove the tied-on method into the ground. Materials innovation from the necessities of the war also brought a solution to this mundane problem: self-adhesive paper, fluorescent ink, vinyl, and silicone. Bumper sticker technology was battle-tested and ready to take to the highways.
America’s post-war extension of federal highways and suburbs, and the subsequent love affair with the automobile, soon made the bumper sticker ubiquitous. Roadside attractions were the first adherents. Attendants at places like Luray Caverns worked the parking lots, slapping on advertisements while the tourists were deep in a cave. Congressional candidates soon got in on the act. For instance, Congressman Clarence Brown of Ohio used day-glo colors to make his Washington office a sightseers’ destination.
There were good reasons to use them in a campaign, too. Bumper stickers were cheap but tough, and the electorate was crazy for them. Among other reasons, drivers could advertise their politics while preserving a bit of anonymity. In fact, they were so well-matched to a nation on wheels that they became many Americans’ likeliest means of political expression. In the modern social media era, bumper stickers survived, a tribute to Americans’ love of cars and desire to indulge in a little rear-end rhetoric on the road.
Sources: Baker, Whitney. “Soapbox for the Automobile: Bumper Sticker History, Identification, and Preservation,” Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals, Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 2011; Roger A. Fischer, Tippecanoe and Trinkets Too: The Material Culture of American Presidential Campaigns, 1828-1984 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988); Schwab, Armand Jr., “Bumpers Tell Tourist’s Story,” New York Times, June 15, 1952; Edmund B. Sullivan, Collecting Political Americana (Hanover, MA: Christopher Publishing House, 1991); Mark Warda, 200 Years of Political Campaign Collectibles (Clearwater, FL: Galt Press, 2005).Follow @USHouseHistory