Like them or not, billboards are part of the American landscape. They tell us where to fill up on gas, local peaches, and pecan logs. They encourage us to try new products. They display photos of wanted criminals and missing persons. They educate, entertain, and frustrate us, cluttering up the landscape and guiding us to fresh coffee and clean restrooms. Unavoidable as they are, they also provide a fascinating window on American popular culture.
Now more than 27,000 images of billboards and other outdoor advertisements have been digitized and made available online by Duke University Libraries. The new digital collection, ROAD 2.0, brings together a vast collection of historical advertising images from the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Marketing & Advertising History, part of Duke’s Special Collections Library. The images, most of them taken between the 1930s and 1980s, include not only billboards but also wall paintings, electric “spectaculars” (such as the neon signs New York’s Times Square), bus shelters, taxi displays, and behind-the-scenes shots of outdoor ads under construction and sign painters at work.
In 2005, Duke University Libraries created the first Resource of Outdoor Advertising Descriptions (ROAD) database, an NEH grant-funded project to provide access to Duke’s vast collection of outdoor advertising material. But the original ROAD database did not include images, only descriptive information. ROAD 2.0 takes up where the previous project left off, although its 27,000 images represent only about a quarter of the total collection.
The images for ROAD 2.0 were digitized with the assistance of a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. Most of them come from the papers of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, the primary professional organization for the modern outdoor advertising industry since 1891. (For complete descriptions of the Hartman Center’s outdoor advertising collections, visit the Center’s website.)
Direct to ROAD 2.0 Collection