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Bumper Sticker

In 1924, the American economy seemed to be in great shape.  Unemployment was low, business was doing well, and there didn’t seem to be any significant threat of war overseas.  A sense of optimism pervaded the nation.  Prohibition was in full swing, but for a lot of people, there weren’t too many sorrows they needed to drown.

The presidential election that year was an unusual one.  The big issue among Democrats was Prohibition: the party was divided over whether to support it or to push for its repeal.  The 1924 Democratic Convention was so divided over the Prohibition issue that it wasn’t until the 103rd ballot that the party finally settled on John W. Davis, a compromise candidate who opposed Prohibition, but who was also a conservative who opposed women’s suffrage, child labor laws, and the 15th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting laws.  The presence of Davis on the Democratic ticket drove the progressive wing of the party to the Progressive Party, which had nominated “Fightin’ Bob” LaFollette as their own presidential candidate that year.  With all this division and chaos among Democrats, all the Republicans needed to do was to ignore their opponents.  The GOP let them fight each other while taking credit for the booming economy (whether they deserved it or not).

The Republicans wanted to elect President Calvin Coolidge to a full term.  Coolidge had been President Warren Harding’s vice president, and took over in August 1923 when Harding died of what is generally believed to have been food poisoning.  The slogan the GOP came up with that year for their man was “Keep cool with Coolidge”.  The message was that we “keep cool”, and that we not do anything rash like vote for a candidate from a different party.  The 1924 election was a good year for the Republicans, who retained control of the Senate, expanded their control of the House by 22 seats, and won the presidency in a landslide.

It is sometimes said that around this time, the first bumper stickers appeared, bearing the GOP’s pro-Coolidge slogan.  This isn’t exactly right.  While it’s true that the first political campaign that tried to use stickers on cars to promote a candidate appeared during the 1924 campaign, this sticker was designed to appear on the windshield, not the bumper.  The original “Keep cool with Coolidge” sign for cars was affixed by a strip of glue, the kind used on postage stamps and envelopes.  The front of the sticker had a note telling you to “Lick here” to moisten the sticker, which you would plaster somewhere on your windshield.

An original “Keep cool with Coolidge” window sticker from the 1924 election.

While the Coolidge stickers were the first political ones, these window stickers had already been in use for years, and the windshield was the most popular place to put them.  They weren’t so common as political statements as they were tourist souvenirs.  Around the time Henry Ford figured out how to mass produce cheap automobiles, the United States was making an effort to build thousands of miles of paved highways connecting cities and towns for the first time.  Road trips became a popular novelty, now that it was possible to get transportation that allowed you to travel at speeds up to 50 miles per hour!  The first window stickers were released by the National Parks Service.  They were popular souvenirs for road trippers.

A 1915 window decal that let you announce you’d visited the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah and Colorado.

Henry Ford himself had such a sticker on at least one of his cars in 1917, when the United States entered World War I:

Window stickers like this are not as common as they used to be.  In their heyday they were tolerated, as long as they didn’t block too much of the view.  Most states and countries have regulations that allow stickers and decals on the windshield, as long as they don’t obstruct the view of the driver.  Regardless, the style of car stickers seems to have migrated off the windshield, for the most part, and down to the bumpers.

The bumper was not a good place for stickers that need to be licked.  Rain or sun, those would eventually peel off.  They were safe on the interior of the car, but exposed to the elements, they wouldn’t last long.  The bumper had already been used for “bumper signs”, which were usually handmade signs made from cardboard, held in place with twine.  These were seldom sold commercially, and not durable.  Metal “bumper plates” were rare, but they did exist, too.

This rare bumper plate supported the 1924 presidential campaign of Progressive candidate Bob LaFollette.

It wasn’t until 1946 when the bumper sticker finally appeared.  Forest P. Gill, the owner of a print shop in Kansas City, made use of two new technologies: adhesive tape and day-glo paint.  He realized he could make durable signs of his own and sell them to people who wanted to announce their opinions and tastes on their own bumpers.

It didn’t take long for the craze to catch on.  Bumper stickers were souvenirs, political messages, religious messages, advice, jokes that someone thought were funny enough to semi-permanently enshrine on their cars… all kinds of statements.  The first presidential election to see a lot of bumper stickers was the 1952 election between General Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Adlai Stevenson.

Bumper sticker manufacturers pay close attention to politics.  Close elections produce greater demand for bumper stickers, whether it’s a primary or a general election.  The bumper sticker might be a boon to political advertising, but not so much to political discourse.  It is sometimes said of complex ideas in politics, “That won’t fit on a bumper sticker,” meaning that if an idea can’t be boiled down into a quick, punchy line or two, it’s not going to have much effect on most voters.

Who uses bumper stickers these days?  A lot of people, but they’re an uncommon habit for the rich.  Luxury cars seldom have bumper stickers on them, probably out of fear that the residue of the tape will hurt the resale value.  A 2008 study at the University of Colorado showed that people whose cars sport bumper stickers are more prone to road rage than those who aren’t.  The message of their bumper stickers, whether they say “Coexist” or “My dog bit your honor student” is not relevant—all bumper sticker fanciers are more prone to aggressive driving.


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