Signs along roads started during the time of the Egyptians, who would carve advertising messages on rocks. But the term “billboard” didn’t come into effect until the 19th century. So why are signs called “billboards” today?
“Bills” were early posters
Advertising, in the early days, was all about posters. These were then glued over each other with each change of the advertisement, using paste. Over the decades and enhancement in the printing process, the posters grew in size. They also became larger due to the manner in which people saw them, morphing from pedestrians to cyclists to automobile drivers. The people who installed these ads were called “bill posters” and they had a tough job as they would install all the pieces of the poster while balancing on a ladder with a brush full of glue. By the 1940s these “bills” had grown to 12’ x 24’ in size and were strictly the bastion of car driving viewers. Of course, smaller posters still exist in movie theaters, but “billboards” are the sole spot for the big posters today. And, of course, most of these have been converted to vinyl production and there’s no longer glue necessary.
“Boards” were what they put the paper and glue on
So what did they mount the “bills” on? Originally the answer was just the wall, but over time it changed to a smooth surface designed for that use, which was basically sheets of plywood that were affixed to that same brick wall. By the 1950s that plywood had been renamed “panels” for their sole function on the standard billboard frame, but the name “boards” had still stuck. Of course, panels changed over the years from wood, to metal, to fiberglass, and eventually to vinyl. Some owners still refer to their signs as “boards” even today, when you ask them how many they own.
Then just put them together
What do you get when you combine these two words? The answer, of course, is “billboard”. Over the years this term has grown to encompass any number of materials and designs. Wooden signs on telephone poles get the same generic name as big steel monopoles. Even huge 100’ tall vinyl signs on the side of buildings still get called “billboards”. But, of course, it all began with simple posters on the side of walls to be read by pedestrians wearing tophats.
“Billboards” are a term that took decades to come up with. Today it’s a descriptive term for every aspect of the outdoor advertising industry. It kind of ties the history together of this most American of cultural products.