Picks and Pans Review: The American Billboard: 100 Years

updated 08/26/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/26/1991 01:00AM

by James Fraser

One era's nuisance is another era's artifact.

In 1965, the Highway Beautification Act severely limited the placement of billboards along the federal highways, more than implicitly suggesting that billboards were visual blights on the national landscape. There are now an estimated 500,000 billboards in the U.S.—some 710,000 fewer than there were 26 years ago.

But this illustrated history, maybe because it shows only the best signs, is often convincing in its nostalgia for great roadway ads of the past and respect for today's examples of the form.

Fraser is chief librarian at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham-Madison, N.J., which houses the Outdoor Advertising Association of America archives. His book's text oozes uncritical adoration of billboards' contributions to the pop culture.

Fraser says, for instance, that the outdoor advertising industry's activities directed against the Highway Beautification Act weren't really lobbying—" 'public education' is a more apt description." Of the '70s, he effuses, "Good things happened, but better things came with the '80s: more technological advances, highly successful product campaigns, improved graphics, research advances."

For most people, though, the text is beside the point. The fun comes in its images of memorable billboards. From art deco boards of the '20s to happy-talk postwar ads to today's indulge-yourself products, these illustrations evoke memories, sociological speculations and aesthetic evaluations.

Fraser omits Burma Shave signs (DRINKING DRIVERS/ NOTHING WORSE/ THEY PUT/ THE QUART/ BEFORE THE HEARSE/ BURMA SHAVE) because, he says, they weren't true billboards. Without explanation he ignores the Great Plains states' Wall Drug's ads, the self-hyping entertainers' billboards around Hollywood and the mechanized billboards in New York City's Times Square.

So this can't be considered definitive. It is, however, like the works of commerce and communication it is concerned with, worth a passing glance. (Abrams, $49.50)

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