The American Bumper Sticker:  A Brief History

Did you know that road rage is more common among drivers whose cars bear bumper stickers than among those who cars are sticker-less, regardless of the belief system expressed by those stickers?   So says the author of a 2005 study on road rage, and it may be a uniquely American index of just how seriously we take our right to self-expression.

Bumper stickers are a ubiquitous part of our culture.   They are used to express political viewpoints, convey inspirational or philosophical thoughts, or carry a variety of commercial and advertising messages.   Slapping a sticker on a car’s nether parts is a popular way for a driver to share ideas that they may or may not be comfortable stating out loud. The practice charts a fascinating course through modern American history, encompassing technological advancements, car culture, sociology, and the evolution (or de-evolution) of political discourse.

The first bumper stickers appeared as advertising messages attached to horsefly netting in carriages before the advent of the automobile, and progressed to metal or cardboard signs affixed to bumpers in the early years of the horseless carriage.  The first paper signs, attached by wetting and placing inside car windows, appeared during the 1940’s. Forest Gil, a Kansas City silkscreen printer, is credited with creating the first adhesive stickers that could be attached to bumpers, using fluorescent inks, pressure-sensitive stickers, and adhesive-backed paper strips (all made possible by manufacturing advancements during World War II).

By the 1950’s the stickers were being used to promote tourist attractions, and directly contributed to the boom in popularity of such sites as Rock City in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.  But the bumper sticker hit its stride with the 1952 campaign of Dwight D. Eisenhower, when “I Like Ike” was proclaimed from millions of car bumpers and paved the way for the broadcasting of political affiliations as part of the daily driving experience.  

A bumper sticker was even featured in a pair of landmark First Amendment court cases in 1991. Profanity on a bumper sticker was judged to be constitutionally protected speech according to a Georgia supreme court judge, while a federal district court in Alabama ruled that another sticker bearing a profane message had “serious literary and political value” and as such came under First Amendment protection.

So the next time you’re stuck in traffic with nothing to stare at but the bumper stickers of the cars around you (and perhaps sporting a couple of your own), consider that you’re participating in a time-honored American free speech ritual — and helping to shape history at the same time.

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2020/11/24