Larry Bird, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, agrees that social media has played a role in the decline of bumper stickers. For Bird—a specialist in American political history and symbols—bumper stickers represent the last vestiges of the old “hurrah” campaigns of the 1950s, which were characterized by parades, painted tractor trailers, and rallies where campaigners would distribute their wares. Today, campaigning is significantly more manicured for television, and has lost what Bird calls the “thingness” that comes with receiving a button or bumper sticker from your favorite candidate.
That is definitely NOT the case for the people who commission them.
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Gilman replied, “Well, I can say that, since we’ve been making bumper stickers, every winner of the national election has used the most bumper stickers.”
The bumper itself had only been around since about 1910. According to Leslie Kendall, a curator from the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, the earliest bumpers “were springy aftermarket devices designed to safely bounce obstructions (like oblivious farm animals) out of the way of the car, often during attempts to park”—helpful during a time when the roads were less well kept and the drivers less sophisticated.
He showed Teichner some of the metallic applications (including photographic images) that, before the bumper sticker came along in the 1940s, could weather the storm and decorate your car. “They come in all different shapes and forms,” he said. One license plate-like, dating from 1928, featured a picture of Herbert Hoover.
Campaign bumper stickers are part of a hallowed (if sometimes raucous) tradition, as Martha Teichner now tells us:
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David Ellis sells political bumper stickers in Westport, Conn.
Tallahassee, Florida stockbroker John Clark paid $12,000 for a 1920 campaign button featuring Democratic nominee James Cox, and his running mate: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The company has sold more than $2 million in bumper stickers this year, Gilman says, but sales of bumper stickers have been dropping. He blames it on digital and social-media advertising as replacements for the stickers, buttons, and campaign pins of yore.
By 1950, Gill had built a significant business selling stickers and similar products in the specialty advertising industry. The company’s first large volume request was 25,000 bumper stickers for Marine Gardens, a tourist attraction in Clearwater, Florida. But by the next decade, mass orders often skewed political: In 1968, the company printed 20 million stickers for the presidential campaign of the notorious segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. (It has also printed stickers for candidates including LBJ, Kennedy, and Reagan.)
The premise of bumper stickers, he says, is “actual physical contact and connection through that thing. In other words, I’m giving you this thing with my name on it, and I’m looking at you and you’re looking at me, we’re interacting.” It’s a more tangible declaration than a Facebook post: Postwar tourist stickers said, “I went somewhere”; political bumper stickers say, “I care about something.”
Once free, now you have to pay for bumper stickers, mainly so that campaigns can scoop up your name, phone number and email address. Gill Studios has noticed they’re good for something else: An informal polling data point.
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It’s election season, which means an uptick in the number of car bumpers declaring their drivers’ political allegiances. The application of the political sticker is a ritual I know well: When I was younger, one of my first purposely political acts was to cover the bumper of my used 1991 Toyota Corolla with progressive-minded messages.
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But the bumper sticker has its origins in a very different realm. Before they were popular campaign tools, the stickers were used for marketing of another kind: vacation spots.
Teichner asked, “Do you ever kind of have an informal correlation between the highest number of bumper stickers and who wins?”
But then came World War II, and along with technology (including day-glo colors) and adhesive paper. It wasn’t long before somebody put them together.
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How toxic is this year’s presidential race? Any one of these little punch lines that David Ellis is selling outside his Westport, Conn., home could be a 3 x 10 invitation to vandalize somebody’s car.
“I’m not so sure that I’m gonna put ‘em on my car, at least not yet,” one customer told Ellis. “I think I’m a little nervous about what might happen.”
Not only are bumper stickers inflammatory, they get no respect compared to all the other political swag out there.
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Sometimes, of course, those beliefs are outdated, vestiges of a moment when a now-obsolete slogan was in vogue; at any rate, a sticker always specifies a particular time and circumstance. Even though Forest Gill made the bumper sticker removable so many years ago, it can still be hard to get one off. Unlike social media, the bumper sticker still involves a verifiable commitment, and a simply stated one. “It says everything,” Bird notes, “while at the same time saying very little.”
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Because automobiles are extensions of their owners’ personalities, cars and politics were made for each another.
“He put the idea of the bright colors and the sticky paper together to come up with a bumper sticker,” said Gill’s son-in-law, Mark Gilman, the chairman of Gill Studios, now located in Lenexa, Kansas. “His innovation was to make the bumper sign self-sticking.”
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If you look closely at a bumper sticker, you’ll likely see a label indicating which union printed it—my Bernie Sanders sticker, for example, was made by Sign Display Local 100. For this reason, Gilman says, bumper stickers are often popular with Democratic candidates. “We’re making a lot of Bernie Sanders bumper stickers this year,” he tells me.
Who’s ahead this year? According to this totally unscientific method of figuring it out, Hillary (with orders of 2.3 million this year), ahead of Trump (at 800.000).
And, as it turned out, bumpers were also a boon to advertisers for national parks, motels, and other tourist attractions. Capitalizing on the wanderlust of war-weary Americans who’d scrimped and saved and were now eager to drive their new automobiles, marketers would often affix bumper stickers on tourists’ cars while they were visiting the attraction, explains Mark Gilman, the chairman of the board at Gill-Line. They were often a point of pride for consumers: “It meant that you’d been somewhere,” he says.
“As early as there were cars, there were ways of decorating your car to support your candidate,” said Harry Rubenstein, who heads the Division of Political History at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Automotive free speech can have consequences. You might have seen the story in May about the South Carolina tow truck driver who refused to tow a disabled woman’s car, because she had a Bernie sticker on it.
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To quote a terrible cliché, only time will tell. Meanwhile, here’s OUR vote for best bumper sticker:
Even so, there’s a benefit to the bumper sticker: While we are cloistered in the tiny, antisocial world of our automobiles, these bumper stickers offer us an invitation to interact with the outside world. In his book If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers, the author Jack Bowen explained that bumper stickers all contain an unspoken if-then clause: Behind a sticker bearing the command “Imagine World Peace,” for example, is the condition, “If you can read this, then Imagine World Peace.” It’s a formulation that allows the reader to get closer, to engage in conversation, to align themselves with or against a belief.
America’s post-war love affair with the automobile guaranteed that these traveling billboards got around. But tourist attractions — not political campaigns — were the original users.
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Today, there are thousands of bumper sticker producers. Gill Studios is one of the bigger ones. In an election year, this one company prints 40 million, 15 million of those political.
He’s got hundreds of them anyway — the odder, the better. One for Barry Goldwater is a play on Au, for gold, and H20, for water.
A nice idea, but bumper stickers and the people who sport them are now often seen in a negative light. Kim Kardashian, when asked by talk show host Wendy Williams if she had tattoos, famously offered this wisdom: “Honey, would you put a bumper sticker on a Bentley?” And a 2008 study by Colorado State University researchers found that people who put bumper stickers on their cars tend to be more aggressive, territorial drivers.
Gill prints whatever message a customer wants, positive or negative. The company has no political agenda.
1952 was the first real bumper-sticker presidential election: Eisenhower vs. Stevenson. Ike vs. Adlai.
“And I was like, ‘Wait, really?’ And he says, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and just walks away,” Cassy McWade said.
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.Bumper stickers from Gill Studios, Lenexa, Kansas
“I have the right to service who I want to,” said pro-Trump tow truck driver Ken Shupe. “Just something came over me. I think the Lord came to me and said, ‘Get in your truck and leave.’”
“Bumper stickers, maybe $5, perhaps $10, if it’s very rare,” Clark said.
It’s been said that Americans consider their cars extensions of their personalities, so it does seem that cars and politics were made for one another.
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Simona Supekar is a writer and an English instructor at Pasadena City College in Los Angeles.
In 1934, the Kansas City silkscreen printer Forest Gill launched Gill-Line Productions, the company credited with producing some of the country’s first bumper stickers. In the years following World War II, Gill began experimenting with new materials, combining an adhesive with DayGlo ink to create the first self-sticking bumper sticker. The new design was a significant upgrade from the paper-and-string contraptions known as “bumper signs.”