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January 10-16, 2007

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'Great American Billboards: 100 Years of History by the Side of the Road'

Great American Billboards: 100 Years of History by the Side of the Road
(By Fred E. Basten; 10 Speed Press; 218 pages; $19.95 paper)

At the end of the 1800s, advances in printing technology and a burgeoning economy created the conditions for an explosion of outdoor advertising: on walls, on fences and on billboards. Fred E. Basten's heavily illustrated and underwritten survey, which draws heavily on the archives of Foster and Kleiser, the leading billboard company, starts with brightly colored posters from the turn of the last century. Designed for a time when travelers moved more slowly and had time to absorb complicated messages plastered on the side of barns, they gave way to the classic wooden billboard when the automobile set Americans free for leisure travel. The eye-grabbing examples Basten provides range from Gibson girl come-ons (sex always sells) to typographical simplicity (a 1916 Spearmint gum ad still looks au courant) to Art Deco sleekness to catchy slogans (Lucky Strikes: "It's Toasted"). In the 1950s, billboards started to outgrow their borders with huge cutouts—a Budweiser ad features a waterskiing beauty whose head and shoulders soar above her background silhouetted against the sky. The old billboards are wonderfully evocative; a 1940 ad for San Francisco's Hotel St. Francis shows an elegant couple waltzing their way around a spinning platter; they are figuratively "Dancing 'Off the Record.'"

Review by Michael S. Gant


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