More than just a decoration on the back of a car or truck — then as now, bumper stickers were there to make a statement.
Whether demonstrating support for a sports team or band, showing membership in a club, expressing political views, or offering any other kind of personal expression — particularly during the fifties and sixties — the idea was that “anything goes,” as long as it could fit on to a piece of plastic or paper about 3 inches by 10 inches.
Bumper stickers were also pretty safe. While wearing t-shirts with slogans and opinions could cause in-person confrontations, bumper stickers slapped on the back of a vehicle have people a passive way to express their views without having to go face-to-face to share them.
Here, find out more about how these small paper or plastic decals have become a ubiquitous piece of Americana.
Bumper stickers: something for everyone (1973)
Article by Ron Wells — Fremont Tribune (Fremont, Nebraska) December 5, 1973
Some bumper stickers are religious, and some are considered to be seditious.
A few have slogans which are rather contagious, while others are plain outrageous.
Some warn of doom or impending disaster, but others only allude to what they’re after.
Some bumper stickers demand peace, civil rights, and a better ecology, while others advertise people, places, and pornology.
There isn’t a subject that one cannot find, including, “You’re Driving Too Close If You Can Read This Sign!”
The bumper sticker is becoming as much a part of the American scene in the ’70s as the roadside Burma Shave signs were in the ’40s and SOs. The variety of subjects bumper stickers cover is as numerous as people and their opinions.
Politics, ecology, religion, sex, advertising, are just some of the areas which are fair game for bumper sticker aficionados.
“Don’t Blame Me; I Voted For McGovern”, “Pitch In”, “Milk Drinkers Make Better Lovers”, “Honk If You Love Jesus”.
Of course, politics is responsible for the greatest number of bumper stickers, but they are also used by organizations and individuals wishing to cross their point of view or just be funny.
According to the Printing Industries Association, there are no figures available on the number of bumper stickers printed each year, or what percentage of the printing industry’s total business consists of bumper stickers.
For the best idea just look around at the number of automobiles displaying one or more of them.
“Have A Nice Day”, “Nuclear Power Means Cleaner Air”, “America: Love It Or Leave It”, “Dirty Old Men Need Love Too.”
Bumper stickers are usually produced by a printing method called silkscreen. The reason for this is that most bumper stickers are produced in small quantities of from 100 to 2,500.
“On small orders, a silk-screen operation has less set up cost,” said Joseph Beaty, foreman at San Diego (Calif.) Silk Screen Service, in an interview.
“However, for orders of 10,000 or more a lithograph or offset printer’s costs are less because he can run them off faster.”
According to Beaty, San Diego Silk Screen handles from six to 10 different bumper sticker jobs each month, which account for only a small percentage of their total business.
Most of these orders come from local advertising agencies or chambers of commerce. Occasionally the firm will get several orders for the same bumper sticker. In this case, according to Beaty, extras are printed up which the company will use for stock distribution.
“In the last three years,” said Beaty, “the novelty-type bumper sticker has really been increasing in popularity to where it’s almost as — widespread as the political type.”
“This is a Bumper Sticker”, “Register Criminals; Not Guns”, “Keep On Truckin’.”, “Fighter Pilots Do It Better”.
According to Beaty, the average cost for a hundred 4- by 10-inch silk-screened bumper stickers is around $38. Vinyl-coated bumper stickers or ones requiring special designs increase the per 100 price.
One of the oldest printers of bumper stickers is the Aldine Printing Co. in Los Angeles. They’ve been printing them since 1935, mostly for national and state political campaigns.
According to Vice President David Feinstein, bumper stickers account for about 25 percent of the company’s total business.
“Bumper stickers are subject to public whim,” Feinstein said. “Our political trade was at an all-time low in 1960 and 1964, now it’s booming. Our private group business literally died after the Vietnam war, but now that’s picking up, too.”‘
San Diego Silk Screen and Aldine Printing do a great number of novelty bumper stickers but both firms exercise a great deal of control over the subject matter.
“If we print it, it’s got to be within the bounds of good taste,” said Feinstein. “We leave the ‘blue’ ones to the outfits that print the porno magazines.”
Aldine’s most famous bumper sticker can be found on cars from Manhattan to Malibu: it is the happy face “Have A Nice Day” sticker.
“It’s a public relations gimmick for us,” said Feinstein. “We send them to clients along with their invoice slips.”
“Love Carefully; Plan Your Parenthood”, “I’m High On Jesus”, “Support Your Local Police”, “Trees Are A Renewable Resource”
According to Feinstein, individual groups account for the largest number of orders placed, but public relations agencies account for the largest orders “because they have the money to order 10,000 or 100,000 or a million.”
But why bumper stickers? Why not lapel pins, sandwich boards or balloons or newspaper, television or radio ads?
“It’s important to understand that bumper stickers are a way that people can express themselves and communicate with one another,” said Dr. Thomas N. Rusk, medical director at the Western Institute of Human Resources, in an interview.
“It’s more personal and visible than a newspaper ad and from an economic standpoint it is cheaper,” he said.
Rusk sees the use of bumper stickers as a way people can yell their point of view all over town without being held too accountable for it. “There aren’t too many people who are going to jump into a strange car to argue the pros or cons of a bumper sticker,” he said.
“There is courage involved in expressing yourself through a bumper sticker but it’s a cop-out too because you don’t have to argue the point unless you want to.”
To Rusk, bumper stickers are also a way people personalize their cars. “The car manufacturers have long been bombarding us with the idea that a person’s car is merely an extension of his or her personality or lifestyle,” said Rusk, who is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego.
“A Smile Increases Your Face Value”, “Think Snow”, “I’d Rather Be Sailing”, “Adoption; Not Abortion”
“Well, bumper stickers allow persons to further personalize their cars by putting ‘their own personal messages on them,’ he said. “They can reflect our basest desires or our most commendable thoughts.”‘
Rusk believes that the bumper sticker is just a refined form of graffiti, which has its roots back in prehistoric times when man first painted pictures on the walls of his cave.
Those people who display bumper stickers of questionable subject matter are like children who keep testing their parents’ authority to see how much they can get away with before they’re punished, said Rusk.
“If more of these type appear, bumper stickers in general could be classed as an incredible intrusion on people’s privacy,” Rusk said. “Laws prohibit me from appearing nude in public because it offends public decency. The same may hold true for bumper stickers.”‘
“Honk If You’re Horny”, “Old Ladies Need Love”, “Impeachment with Honor”, “I’m OK, You’re OK”
Rusk predicts that if cities eliminate outdoor signs they may soon be banning bumper stickers for the same reasons although he believes that at the present time they are serving an important function by spreading ideas, information and humor.
“People are even replying to one another’s bumper stickers,” he said. “This was especially evident during the Vietnam war, when the doves had ‘Get Out of Vietnam,’ and the hawks had ‘America: Love It Or Leave It’ on their respective bumpers.”‘
Rusk voices concern that too much communication may be just as harmful to people’s emotions as not enough.
“I think we’re on the verge of being overwhelmed by the variety of ways we can communicate and be communicated with,” he said. “Bumper stickers are part of this communications bombardment but unlike radio, television, newspapers or friends, you can’t ignore them because they’re staring at you from the bumper of the car in front of you.”
“Welcome Home POWS”, “This Is Teddy Bear Country”, “Quit Honking: I’m Pedaling As Fast As I Can”, “One-Way”.
Eco-friendly bumper stickers for our times (1974)
From New York Magazine – September 9, 1974
Cut along dotted lines, paste on bumper, save America
Down with thermostats!
Big cars are pig cars
If I took the subway, I’d be home by now
Elbow grease is not fattening
The bumper sticker fad: A look from 1958
Article from US News & World Report magazine – January 1958
The current automobile sticker fad may or may not have been spread by truck drivers. They had a hand in it, certainly, for they have long been fond of enlivening travel with messages to other drivers, such as:
“Don’t hug me so close, I’m going steady” or “This truck stops for red lights and blondes — backs up 25 feet for redheads”
Texas, however, clearly is responsible for the “Made in ______” stickers which are blossoming out on passenger cars.
The Lone Star state got some automobile assembly plants. Normally, as everyone knows, Texans are reticent and retiring. But they could not conceal their pleasure at recognition of their manufacturing ability. A sticker was devised, bearing the proud device, “Made in Texas by Texans.”
This got a rise out of Californians, who have produced retaliatory stickers intended to take the Texans down a few notches. This one, for example, on a racy sports car: “Made in Pasadena by Little Old Ladies.”
Now the “Made in _____” conceit is being adapted to cars of many kinds. A motorist who doesn’t think much of contemporary styling describes his car’s origin this way: “Made in a smog by the blind.” And a Volkswagen owner came up with this demure credit: “Made in the Black Forest by elves.”
You are going to see more and more of this highway humor, it appears. The sticker industry is going great guns, putting out paste-on wisecracks for side windows as well as read.
Also for any and all occasions… or for none, as in the case of one election-type sticker. Somebody got tired of all the solemn motorized electioneering, so now there is an all-purpose voting sticker good any time of year. It reads: “Vote yes or no.”