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What Once Was

Selling the Eyes of the Public – Washington Wages War on Billboards

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By Matthew B. Gilmore*

Technological advances in outdoor advertising have again outstripped regulatory control. Washingtonians are once again struggling to control advertising in and adjacent to public space. To the surprise of some, perhaps, this struggle has been going on for well over a century. As printing technology evolved, a profusion of garish, dubious advertising signs, cropped up in Washington and the rest of urban America.

Digital billboard in 2019 Los Angeles from the 1982 film Blade Runner screen grab--smithsonian.com

Digital billboard in 2019 Los Angeles from the 1982 film Blade Runner
screen grab–smithsonian.com

Advertising out of doors has been traced back millennia. Billboards today find their origin in the posting of individual advertisements–“bills”—pasted up wherever there was (and sometimes wasn’t) public wall space to accommodate them. These bills advertised events—the circus, theater, political rallies. (The term “bill” is still used in this context today, as in a theater bill or bill of fare.) But wall space was often congested—particularly the best spots. Bills weren’t removed after the event, just pasted over. Bill posters warred against each other—overpasting each other’s bills—in some cases leading to ironic or amusing juxtapositions.

"The bill-poster's dream" (1862). image--New York Public Library Digital Collections, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Div. of Art, Prints Photographs, Print Collection.

“The bill-poster’s dream” (1862). image–New York Public Library Digital Collections, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Div. of Art, Prints Photographs, Print Collection.

Business signs in contrast to event-driven bills, advertised the business name (and products available) at a specific location. It was outdoor advertising too, but specific, not generic or event-driven like bills. Business advertising for small neighborhood businesses could get rather exuberant, illustrated by this 1901 image of Hawkins’ Drug Store in southeast Washington.

1901 view of Hawkins' Drug Store at 4th St. at Va. Ave., SE. photo--Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., DC Street Survey Collection.

1901 view of Hawkins’ Drug Store at 4th St. at Va. Ave., SE. photo–Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., DC Street Survey Collection.

Downtown Washington saw much more elaborate advertising, such as that of Eiseman Brothers at E and 7th Streets NW. Here Eisenman has made their awnings permanent and festooned them with the business name in five-foot-tall letters. To crown it all, the roof has another (slightly smaller) sign. Practices like the occupation of sidewalk public space by Eiseman is one of problems prompting Washington’s first sign regulations.

As seen around 1901, Eiseman Brothers clothiers at 7th and E Sts., NW (street level now occupied by a Starbucks). photo--Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., DC Street Survey Collection.

As seen around 1901, Eiseman Brothers clothiers at 7th and E Sts., NW (street level now occupied by a Starbucks). photo–Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., DC Street Survey Collection.

Billboards

The issues with outdoor advertising diverged. The rights of a business to advertise their wares on their building (within the limits of good taste) seemed indisputable—billboards were something else. Economic and technological ingenuity lead to the end of the “bill wars”. Companies purchased the right to erect large, free-standing boards (“bill boards” or “billboards”) for their exclusive use. Advances in printing lithographic technology allowed the printing of much larger (and colorful) bills—now spanning multiple sheets. In 1891 the Associated Bill Posters’ Association of the United States and Canada (ABPA) was founded—the professional organization for outdoor advertising. This new organization brought industry members together—promulgating sign standards, publicizing best business practices through their monthly journal, and lobbying politicians. The industry flourished. Billboards were not individually or singly owned but a few companies (all belonging to the ABPA) would erect dozens through and around cities (the collection of signs was the referred to as the company’s “plant”).

As billboards flourished, the civic-minded ranked them amongst the blights on urban life, along with smoke and noise — visual, respiratory, and auditory pollutants, a report issued as far back as 1907 by a South Carolina municipal league included the following:

“Why should out eyes lungs, and ears feast on diseased landscape, diseased air, or diseased sound while we frantically endeavor to protect our stomachs against diseased food and drink? . . . a community’s standards are published to the world through its attitude and action toward the physical and aesthetic, as well as moral ills and its tolerance of nuisance in any form. For instance, billboards and posters, desecrating landscapes and disfiguring buildings, indicate a communities’ [sic] sense of the beautiful and congruous, and if improper or indecent, show an even greater last of solicitude or concern on the part of the public for its own welfare.” [1]

(Washington struggled with noise pollution for many more years. See, “Honk that horn – Go to Jail: Evolution of noise regulation in Washington, DC,” April 2016 issue.)

Signs on shops might have been garish and visually polluting enough, but billboards seeped into all the free space available, especially vacant building lots. Billboards by dint of size and prominence tended to advertise nationally-available products. Some of these products were socially questionable; for example, the Womans’ Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) opposed billboards, particularly those advertising alcohol. At the 1891 annual meeting Mrs. Julia H. Platt, in reporting success stated, “[In the] District of Columbia . . . there is a great decrease in display of impure pictures in windows, on sign and bill boards in our city.” [2]

But the concerns of citizens and efforts of organizations like the WCTU put the District government under pressure. In 1900 the head of the Metropolitan Police Department, Major Richard H. Sylvester, defended his department’s handling of billboard regulations — in official correspondence leaked to the Washington Post (May 3).

Major Richard W. Sylvester, circa 1901. (Major Sylvester held the position now called Chief of Police.) photo--Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., C.M. Bell Studio Collection.

Major Richard W. Sylvester, circa 1901. (Major Sylvester held the position now called Chief of Police.) photo–Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., C.M. Bell Studio Collection.

In 1902 the District Commissioners proposed a heavy tax on billboards at $2 per square yard of display area. What came out of Congress was a much more extensive act  giving the District government control over outdoor advertising. The law was passed on July 1st as part of the appropriations bill for the District but would not come into effect until rules were published on November 1st.

"War on Bill Boards" heralded the passage of the District's new sign law. Washington Post. July 19, 1902.

“War on Bill Boards” heralded the passage of the District’s new sign law. Washington Post. July 19, 1902.

To implement the law the District government devised an elaborate raft of sign regulations aimed at public safety and reduction of visual pollution. The sign regulations covered the entire realm of outdoor adverting business signs and billboards including an annual tax of $20 and prohibiting advertising except for that on the business premises itself. Real estate yard signs were allowed on residential streets, as well as billboards but only if a majority of residents adjacent and opposite the such billboards agree. While the regulations were painstakingly detailed, they allowed businesses much latitude in their signage.

Engineer Commissioner Col. William B. Ladue would testify to Congress to frustrating effect years later when new legislation was in the works:

“. . . then there is a clause in it which practically, in large measure, nullifies all that has gone before, because it provides that nothing in this Act shall apply to any sign which advertises a business actually conducted or a commodity sold on the premises, so that it almost nullifies it.”

This made the regulations well-nigh unenforceable. Individual business signs might sound innocuous enough but if your business was lucky enough to have a much smaller neighbor you might end up with the chance to post a billboard-sized sign. The sign for the Occidental Hotel (later restaurant) on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW next to the Willard Hotel is an excellent example. The diminutive building directly west of the Occidental allowed yards of plain brick wall to be festooned with “Occidental Hotel” for decades — memorialized in hundreds of photographic views east on Pennsylvania Avenue looking from the Treasury building.

Circa 1930 view of the huge Occidental Restaurant and Hotel sign on the west-facing wall of the Willard Hotel at 14th St. & Pa. Ave., NW as viewed from near 15th St. photo--Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., DC Street Survey Collection.

Circa 1930 view of the huge Occidental Restaurant and Hotel sign on the west-facing wall of the Willard Hotel at 14th St. & Pa. Ave., NW as viewed from near 15th St. photo–Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., DC Street Survey Collection.

By November 1902 the Washington Post was reporting on evasions of the law due to vague wording in the law itself. For example, what was actually meant by “majority of residents” raised the question of defining who should count in that “majority” and of actual distance — both how near of far from the sign location. Also, who was the term “residents” intended to include — head of household, spouse, children, any adult? Ultimately it was ruled to be male householders.

However, by December 28, 1904 the Evening Star was reporting Major Sylvester’s lament on the “poster nuisance”: “Everything has been done under the law to prevent the display of uninviting pictures upon the various bill boards . . . [but they still] . . . detract from the beauty of an otherwise attractive city.”

The problem persisted; in 1908 the Commissioners temporarily stopped issuing new permits and by 1909 Commissioner Henry Litchfield West was again publicly advocating against billboards. Congress agreed to fill at least one hole in the earlier legislation and on March 4, 1913 passed an act to deal with the blight of real estate sales signs.

With the widespread adoption of the automobile the billboard threat migrated out of the city into the countryside. What better way to enliven a boring long-distance drive than with a few well-placed billboards? “Well-placed” became debatable as billboards mushroomed.

In Washington, a kind of “perfect storm” combination of planners, commissions, and events would lead to a whole new line of attack on outdoor advertising signage. In 1902 the Senate Park Commission had published its plan for the beautification of Washington’s inner core. Much of what would develop in Washington was not specifically part of the plan, rather it promulgated some ideals, set in motion planning efforts, and brought together persons who would guide Washington’s development for decades.

Providing adequate office space for the federal government was one of their highest priorities. Government offices were scattered randomly and inefficiently across hundreds of blocks of the city  from Foggy Bottom to Capitol Hill, anywhere space might be afforded.

The Park Commission had planned consolidation of executive branch offices around Lafayette Square. But  because expansion of the federal government during the First World War drove the need for much greater volume of office space, ringing Lafayette Square would have been entirely inadequate. (However, had this not been so, the square today would have appeared vastly different; the only representative of what it might have looked like is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Building where Connecticut Avenue ends at the square’s north side.)

The 1926 Public Buildings Act redirected executive branch offices to what became the Federal Triangle, displacing planned DC municipal uses. (See: “Dignified, restrained, and well-proportioned”; the making of the District of Columbia Municipal Building,” InTowner, February 2016 issue.

This billboard promoting the War Savings Stamps (WSS) program was photographed around 1917 on the site across from the White House of what was to be the U.S. Treasury Annex building at the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. & Madison Pl., NW. directly; circa 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Harris & Ewing Collection.

This billboard promoting the War Savings Stamps (WSS) program was photographed around 1917 on the site across from the White House of what was to be the U.S. Treasury Annex building at the corner of Pennsylvania Ave. & Madison Pl., NW. directly; circa 1917.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Harris & Ewing Collection.

While constructing and maintaining elegant and architecturally appropriate buildings to house the federal government, the visual pollution of outdoor advertising and billboards had not been quashed by the 1902 regulations. The Commission of Fine Arts CFA), inheritor of the flame of the Senate Park Commission plan, took a lively interest in regulation of signs.

Worthy of its namesake

But another factor loomed in the background — the year 1932, the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday. Congress had authorized in 1924 a high-powered commission, overseen by 1893 World’s Fair impresario Congressman Sol Bloom, to prepare appropriate celebrations and commemorations. For years planning efforts in and around Washington were driven by (or gave a nod to) the upcoming anniversary and the need to make Washington worthy of its namesake. Of the urban trifecta of auditory, visual, and respiratory blight only smoke had been banished. The struggle against noise was perpetual, but it was clear something must be done about signs and billboards.

The Commission of Fine Arts played a key role. The DC Commissioners were revising the sign law for submission to Congress. In 1927 the CFA advised the DC Commissioners on restricting signs; in 1928 revised regulations were referred to the CFA, but nothing came of it since the legislation failed. In 1930 the Shipstead-Luce Act gave the CFA planning review jurisdiction over areas facing federal property — signs included. 1931 the newly proposed sign regulations were again considered and recommendations made; Washington’s clearly inadequate sign regulations were finally replaced with a new law and regulations.

The House committee’s report on the bill stated that the commissioners requested the legislation as it was “urgently needed” to clean up signs before the George Washington bicentennial; they had held public hearings and consulted with many interested parties (commercial and aesthetic) whci included large and small advertising interests, union sign painters, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and the American Civic Association.

And from the Senate committee’s report, this exchange:

“Senator Copeland. Is this proposed bill a part of the plan to make Washington a model city?

“The Chairman. Colonel Ladue can tell you about that.

“Senator Copeland. If it is, then after the celebration can’t we get up another birthday, so that we can keep on with these improvements?”

James Mullings of the Outdoor Advertising Association of Maryland and the District of Columbia testified that  “we are heartily in accord with them. The only thing we have to say is we think they arrived too late. We think the thing should have been in existence long ago.” [3]

On March 3, 1931, Public Law 786, “An Act To regulate the erection, hanging, placing, painting, display, and maintenance of outdoor signs and other forms of exterior advertising within the District of Columbia” was approved for the purpose stated as follows:

“That the Commissioners of the District of Columbia be, and they are hereby, authorized and empowered after public hearings to make and to enforce such regulations as they may deem advisable to (in so far as necessary to promote the public health, safety, morals, and welfare) control, restrict, and govern the erection, hanging, placing, painting, display, and maintenance of all outdoor signs and other forms of exterior advertising on public ways and public space under their control and on private property within public view within the District of Columbia, and such regulations as may be promulgated hereunder shall have the force and effect of law.”

The new law required that each sign have a license and that violators could be fined between $5 and $ 200 per offense per day. The District set up a sign committee which took an extended time to devise regulations — it wasn’t until October 22, 1931 that the Star could report “Sign Regulations near Completion” — skirting very close to the bicentennial deadline.

The list of authorized signs included over 1,000 billboard and wallboard locations. Those billboards in residentially-zoned locations and those abutting public buildings were licensed for up to three years and phased out over a three-year period, beginning November 30, 1931. Forty percent were to be removed in the first year and 30 percent each succeeding year. The blight, however, was not fully removed as big wall signs still legally persisted.

Seen here on Jan. 18, 1939 was U.S. Chamber of Commerce President George H. Davis pasting up the first of the Chamber's 25,000 "Less taxes, more jobs" posters that were to be spread across the nation as part of a drive for reduction in taxes. As reported, David "called in the photographers today to see the first one done right." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Div., Harris & Ewing Collection.

Seen here on Jan. 18, 1939 was U.S. Chamber of Commerce President George H. Davis pasting up the first of the Chamber’s 25,000 “Less taxes, more jobs” posters that were to be spread across the nation as part of a drive for reduction in taxes. As reported, David “called in the photographers today to see the first one done right.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Div., Harris & Ewing Collection.

Jumping forward to 2009, the city’s consumer and regulatory affairs department struggled to remove illegal billboards at 4th and P Streets NW.

These were not on the list of 32 “special signs” (billboards); it isn’t clear whether they were on the 1931 billboard list.

More recently a new potential blight has emerged for District residents to be worried about: electronic billboards, about which The InTowner three months ago featured a detailed account. (See, “Mayor, Council Expect to Wrestle With New Rules to Regulate Controversial Digital Signs,” February 2017 issue; and  a follow-up report, “Prospect of Electronic Billboards Spreading to Neighborhoods Galvanizing Opponents,” March 2017 issue.)

In 2012 the Urban Land Institute reported on “The Future of Signage in the District of Columbia” with a disturbing nod toward (re-)commercialization of public space, as stated:

“As the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.’s historic character is central to the city’s design and identity. While it is essential to preserve and protect that historic character, D.C. also has a number of emerging commercial districts and redeveloping neighborhoods where there is potential for a different urban aesthetic: one that is modern and helps define the District as a creative, green and international metropolis. At the same time, technology advances have brought about new forms of digital and interactive signs that are being used throughout the world. These emerging technologies require cities to take a fresh look at how to plan for and regulate new types of media. Last, given the growing financial constraints faced by public agencies, cities are increasingly developing partnerships for advertising in public spaces and are weighing the benefits and trade-offs related to the commercialization of street furniture and other public goods.”

Map showing DC Dep't. of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs designated "Special Signs" locations as of Jan. 2013. graphic--prepared by author.

Map showing DC Dep’t. of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs designated “Special Signs” locations as of Jan. 2013. graphic–prepared by author.

 Footnotes

 [1] “Beautifying & improving Greenville, South Carolina; Report to the Municipal league, Greenville, South Carolina. (Kelsey & Guild, landscape architects, Boston, Mass. 1907).

[2] Minutes of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, 18th annual meeting. (1891, pg. 192).

[3] U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia; hearing, Fri., Apr. 11, 1930. (Unpublished transcript, pg. 15-18.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Acknowledgements

Thanks to the staff of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress; Civil Reference, National Archives; Kay Fanning, historian, Commission of Fine Arts; John De Ferrari.

References & Resources

 DC government document archive, “Authorized List of Billboards, Three-sheet Poster Boards, and Wall Signs,” dated Nov. 30, 1931.

 Paul Fain, “Ad Out: During the Depression, the District outlawed billboards that deface the historic character of the city. After the late-’90s boomlet, the District outlawed ‘special signs’ that deface the historic character of the city.” (Washington City Paper), Jan, 18, 2002).

Patrice Dickens, “Billboards or ‘signs’? Residents decry new regs as unacceptable.” (The Common Denominator, Feb. 26, 2001).

 Catherine Gudis, Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles, and the American Landscape. (New York, Routledge, 2004).

 Outdoor Advertising Ass’n. of America, “History of OOH” [out-of-home advertising]. (OAAA, 2017).

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at Duke University’s Rubinstein Library. <https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/hartman>

 Poster Advertising Association, The Poster. (1910; electronic copy from HathiTrust Digital Library).

 Matt Novak, “Billboard Advertising in the City of Blade Runner .” (Smithsonian.com, Apr. 27, 2012).

 Donald W. Hendon & William F. Muhs, “Origin and Early Development of Outdoor Advertising in the United States.” (Historical Perspective in Consumer Research (1985); National and International Perspectives, eds. Jagdish N. Sheth & Chin Tiong Tan; Singapore, Ass’n. for Consumer Research, pp. 309-313).

 Craig Turnbull. An American Urban Residential Landscape, 1890-1920. (Amherst, NY, Cambria Press, 2009).

 Urban land Institute, “The Future of Signage in the District of Columbia.” (Washington, DC, 2012).

 Ann Mariano, “It’s the Time of the Signs in the District.” (Washington Post, October 19, 1985).

 Committee of 100 on the Federal City, Memorandum to Mayor & DDOT,  “Narrative Comments on Second Proposed Rulemaking — Title 13: Sign Regulations” [Washington, DC]

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.

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