This essay presents a media history of outdoor advertising that focuses on the material dimensions of controversial paper posters proliferating in cities across the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Poster historians tend to describe these controversies as a matter of content and placement only. But the gendered cultural baggage associated with paper also informed debates about the public display of posters. I track the shifting status of paper across the nineteenth century from a scarce resource primarily associated with male public culture to an overproduced nuisance that littered city streets. Through close readings of debates about posters, their effects, and the litter they produced, I argue that paper posters, as much as the cinema and other media, helped to transform public spaces in ways that allowed women unprecedented access to such spaces. By lending their likenesses to advertising posters, by taking charge of cleaning up paper litter in their communities, and by weighing in on debates about the morality and deleterious effects of certain posters, women found, in paper, a vehicle through which to launch interventions into public life at a time when they were still denied the vote.
INTRODUCTION: THE GREAT WALLACE CIRCUS POSTER INCIDENT
When the Great Wallace Circus arrived in Webster City, Iowa, one summer in the late 1890s, they discovered that their chromolithographed publicity posters had been defaced in a peculiar manner. As one newspaper reporter describes it: “Great sheets of white paper stand out in bold relief on the bill boards, covering up where once the mimic pink tights played such an important part. The girls have been clothed in new dresses, and how they will like it remains to be seen when the circus comes to town.”1 The male circus performers’ legs, though likewise depicted in colorful tights, were left alone, “it being only the ladies that were singled out.”2 An illustration accompanying the article depicts the peculiar effect of this strategic censorship, which had been carried out by the city's policemen on Mayor W. R. Bruleson's orders (fig. 1). The newspaper illustrator replicates the content of the original poster (fig. 2)—a complicated trapeze act involving no fewer than thirteen men and eight women—as well as the five rectangular sheets of plain white paper that policemen had pasted on top of perceived objectionable content. The illustration shows that the censors took great care to affix each piece of paper so that only the female performers’ legs were covered.3
Interestingly, this concern about public display of the female body did not extend to the circus itself.4 Of course, Webster City's moral authorities did not approve of bare legs on real women any more than they did on these paper girls. Their particular attention to the advertising posters signals their discernment of the specificity of this medium. While upstanding citizens could avoid the circus and forbid their wives and children from attending it, they had no such recourse when it came to viewing the posters. The posters were strategically placed on billboards and shop windows in well-traveled public places. A woman could not even do her shopping without viewing these images. The profligate publicness of outdoor advertising made these circus posters more objectionable than either the live event or even moving images presenting similar images. Karen L. Carter and Marcus Verhagen have each written about how posters of scantily clad women were associated with prostitution because both brought the female body into the realm of the public and the commercial.5 They demonstrate that the outdoor location of these posters, as much as the images they displayed, contributed to their controversial status. But it was not only the content and placement of these posters that roused anxieties about the disintegrating boundaries between public and private, residential and commercial, and male and female spaces at the turn of the twentieth century. I argue that posters’ materiality, and in particular the materiality of the paper on which they were printed, is another crucial, yet underhistoricized, aspect of the medium's reception in the United States.
The illustration of the Great Wallace Circus poster clues us into this material dimension (fig. 3). The shading on the corners of the white paper sheets covering the poster indicates places where the paste did not properly adhere to the surface, a common occurrence in early billposting. Printed on cheaply produced wood-based paper designed for economy rather than longevity, the very ephemerality and fragility of these mass-produced posters contributed to their objectionable status. The cheapness of the paper on which these women's figures were printed lent an air of “cheapness” to the women themselves. The reporter quoted above describes a stark contrast between the pristine white paper sheets that “stand out in bold relief” and the original poster's garish colors. Savvy readers may have been reminded of Benjamin Franklin's poem “On Paper,” which compares “the maiden, innocently sweet!” to “fair, white paper, an unsullied sheet.”6 Covering the cheap “mimic pink tights” with unsullied fair white paper was an attempt not only to deny passersby the possibility of sexual arousal at their sight, but also to save the poster girls from lurid stares, to return them to innocence. And yet the dynamic trajectory of each female trapeze artist in the illustration suggests that they have no interest in being “clothed in new dresses.” Instead they appear as though bursting forth out of the confines of these plain, “unsullied” white rectangular sheets of paper.7 Even upstanding women within the community were affected by the material lives of posters. When a circus left a town, women were often enlisted to clean up the shredded and soggy paper posters that littered the ground.
To fully understand the gender dynamics at play in the poster debate, then, we have to attend to the poster's materiality and the long history of gendered baggage attached to paper. Not only was the paper poster the primary medium through which women's bodies were displayed in the streets in public view, but paper itself was gendered. Women had long been instrumental in collecting, sorting, and preparing rags for use in paper production and continued to do so even after the introduction of wood pulp in the manufacturing process. They were in charge of cleaning up paper litter around the home and, when it began to reach unsightly proportions, in city streets. Among the main components of this outdoor litter were circus and burlesque posters, theater programs, and advertising circulars. Beginning as early as the 1860s and reaching a saturation point around 1900, the unregulated proliferation of paper posters pasted on any and all walls, windows, trees, and trashcans transformed outdoor spaces. If architectural facades constitute the skin of a city, outdoor advertising is the flashy but cheaply made costume that covers the city for a brief time until it is stripped off by the elements or replaced with a new design. The addition of this gaudy clothing changed perceptions of the gendered nature of city streets in ways that allowed for women's participation as moral authorities and urban housekeepers. In short, paper poster advertising helped to constitute new sites, both literal and figurative, from which women could launch interventions into public life.
OF PUBLICS AND POSTERS
Thinking through the ways that media disrupt assumptions about the gendered nature of particular spaces and the public/private binary has been a fruitful avenue of inquiry in feminist media historiography. One strand of this consists of reworkings of Jürgen Habermas's theorization of the public sphere as a site where individuals engage in thoughtful debate about matters concerning the collective good.8 In this tradition, the term public sphere refers to a confluence of physical spaces (coffeehouses, theaters, or sidewalks) and media forms (newspapers, movies, or posters) where this debate occurs. Crucially, these sites are ideally separate from the machinations of official governmental politics and the economic market. But discourse that emerges from the public sphere does influence state policy and the economy. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women's activity within the public sphere or, more precisely, the alternative public spheres where they gathered and exchanged ideas, was their only avenue to political influence in the United States at a time when they were denied the vote, barred from political office, and largely excluded from economic affairs.9 Feminist scholars have discussed how emergent mass media, such as magazines and movies, at the turn of the twentieth century helped to construct alternative public spheres for women's political discourse.10 I argue that we must add outdoor advertising to this list. I will not go so far as to say outdoor advertising constituted an alternative public sphere in itself. Rather, the proliferation of paper posters along public-facing walls created a crisis that prompted men in the public sphere to call on women's supposed domestic talents and moral superiority to solve. These women were thus enabled to assert authority and have a voice in matters of broad public concern.
Outdoor advertising is also significant for a parallel tradition in feminist media historiography that defines the public sphere according to its everyday use as the binary opposite of the domestic. Scholars such as Lynn Spigel and Carolyn Marvin demonstrate how the widespread adoption of telephones, radios, and televisions in the United States undermined ideals about the home as a woman-guarded sanctuary where men could escape the pressures of politics and business.11 Of course, the ideologically enforced boundary that defined the domestic sphere and circumscribed women within it was only ever tenuous at best.12 Long before these technological innovations, the material life of paper put pressures on and contributed to cracks in the barrier that divided public and private.
Outdoor advertising in general and paper posters in particular deserve a more prominent place in the annals of media history than they have been afforded thus far. Aside from Catherine Gudis's cultural history of billboard advertising in Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles and the American Landscape, most histories of poster advertising focus on art historical treatments of exceptionally “good” designs by “important” artists and/or artifacts of the political propaganda of the world wars, protests of the 1960s, or theatrical and film culture.13 Not enough attention has been paid to the more mundane posters that wallpapered building facades at the turn of the twentieth century.14 To be fair, these were designed for ephemerality, not longevity, and certainly not for critical scrutiny. As a result, many of my examples come from verbal or pictorial accounts of such posters rather than actual artifacts.
In addition to the problem of ephemerality, another possible reason that these posters have not been given the attention they are due in media history is that the medium is difficult to define. Poster historians have been puzzling over this definition for years. Some define the medium based on material properties, such as its status as a single “separate sheet, affixed to an existing, [public-facing] surface” that has been “multiply produced.”15 Others define the poster in terms of aesthetics: “The poster is an amalgam of written word and graphic image (either abstract or pictorial)…. It is not a case of picture illustrating text nor of text explaining picture, but a fusion of the two elements into a single, striking entity.”16 Still others emphasize the poster's spectatorial effects. For example, Susan Sontag writes: “A poster aims to seduce, to exhort, to sell, to educate, to convince, to appeal … [it] reaches out to grab those who might otherwise pass it by.”17 Each of these descriptions takes up a different aspect of the medium's contours: its material constraints, dominant aesthetic, or affective dimensions.
I use an expansive definition of the poster that incorporates considerations of its material, aesthetic, and affective dimensions. This article focuses on two key features of the poster medium that are particularly relevant to the debates about its proliferation at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States. First, most posters are printed on paper, and, second, most posters are affixed to public-facing vertical surfaces such as walls or boards. In adopting this loose and somewhat contradictory set of definitions to sketch out the contours of the poster as a medium, I am following Lisa Gitelman's definition of media as “socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both the technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collection of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation.”18 If every medium is “socially realized,” then the set of ontological properties that define a given medium is not fixed. A history of the poster could include hand-painted or text-only posters, even though some definitions would exclude these types of object.19 To attend to the material qualities of the paper poster is not to insist on the exclusion of the possibility of a vellum, plastic, or painted-rock poster. Rather, the aim is to highlight the way in which paper technology and the protocols of hanging and interacting with paper posters impacted mass culture in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.
PAPER, GENDER, AND CULTURE
Paper is an ancient technological product that was, for centuries, a precious commodity and the primary medium for data storage. Lisa Gitelman reminds us of this with the title of her book on the “media history of documents,” Paper Knowledge.20 As a vehicle for print culture, the substrate was, by the early 1800s, associated with a male-dominated public sphere. Of course, one of its most auspicious uses in this respect was for “the paper” that delivered timely news. Furthermore, as Frances Robertson points out, printing was seen as a “man's trade.”21 Papermaking, on the other hand, was a craft that involved women at every step. They were employed in papermaking factories, often as rag sorters. According to a Baltimore newspaper, of the five thousand people employed in the United States in the papermaking industry in 1820, only seventeen hundred were males over sixteen years of age: the rest were women and children.22 As weavers and seamstresses, women produced the materials that would later become the rags that constituted the only viable raw material for papermaking until the 1860s. After linen, hemp, or cotton cloth had lived its first life as clothing, sheets, and other textiles, women collected and saved these rags for the public's insatiable demand for more and more paper. Ubiquitous newspaper ads requesting that housewives “save their rags” persistently link this behavior to domestic and wifely duties. In one such ad, male readers are encouraged to direct their wives to “make a rag-bag and hang it under the shelf where the Bible lies.”23 The money made from saving rags was often given to female collectors in these middle-class households and thus created a potential—albeit limited—source of financial freedom. Another advertisement placed by an enterprising peddler in a 1792 New Hampshire newspaper addresses “all little misses” and lists the commodities that he would trade for various quantities of rags. For example, “1 1/2 pounds of rags will buy a primer or a story book, or one yard of ribbon, two thimbles, two rings, twelve gold needles, two strings of beads, one penknife, nine rows of pins.”24
Nearly a century later, this rag economy was still going strong. An instructive story published in The Youth's Companion in 1882 promotes rag saving among young women as an introduction to domestic thrift.25 Little Phenie is tasked with sweeping the floor after a dressmaker's visit has littered it with scraps. Rather than stoop to pick out the rag scraps as her Aunt Anna suggests, Phenie sweeps it all into a pile, saying, “There's such a little of 'em, I don't believe it's a cents worth.” She learns her lesson months later when a tin peddler stops by with a tin pail for sale that Phenie admires. She asks Aunt Anna to buy it for her, but Anna refuses to part with the thirty cents it costs. When the peddler offers to trade it for rags, Anna produces a bag filled with the dressmaker's scraps that she'd saved from Phenie's sweeping. The moral of the story is a variation on the adage “a penny saved is a penny earned.” The absence of a male presence in the house makes the gendered nature of this story even more pronounced. The dressmaker who produces the scraps in Aunt Anna's home is female, and the traveling tin peddler is male. Cloth is here associated with femininity and, to a large extent, domesticity, but it is also the medium through which women can participate in the economy. After all, the dressmaker is paid for her labor. As for the rags, they would soon be converted into paper and destined for a second life as publicity; they thus serve as the means through which Phenie could contribute to public life and the consumer economy.
Already in 1882, when this story was published, the status of paper had shifted.26 Between 1879 and 1899, U.S. production of paper rose considerably. Domestic production increased from 452,000 tons per year in 1879 to over 2 million tons per year in 1899.27 Paper was not only more plentiful in these years; it was also cheaper and faster to produce. This was due to the introduction of steam power and other efficiencies enabled by the industrial revolution, as well as the addition of wood pulp to the rag stock that formed the basis of paper. But this cheaper material and faster, mechanized production also meant a serious decrease in paper's durability and longevity.28 As paper proliferated, so too did its uses. Dard Hunter lists the following variety of paper objects popular by the 1860s: “boxes, cups, plates, washboards, barrels, tabletops, window blinds, roofing, collars, vests, cuffs, aprons, towels, napkins, shirts, bosoms, buttons, hats, handkerchiefs, raincoats, corsets, slippers, petticoats, curtains, carpets, machine belts etc.”29 Paper itself, and not merely the rags from which it was made, thus became associated with a whole new range of uses, many of which were linked to femininity and domesticity.
Replacing cloth and other more durable materials with paper—and the ever-decreasing quality of paper stock for printed materials—inaugurated the throwaway culture that continues to define American consumerism. In the 1890s, paper-box making became an automated affair, and mass-produced products such as Uneeda Biscuit and Ivory Soap could be sold in ever-cheaper and more disposable containers.30 These same companies were early adaptors of outdoor advertising, thus taking advantage of paper's decreasing cost on multiple fronts. The increase in cheap paper production, propelled by the rise of newspapers, a growing reading public, and mass consumer culture, also enabled the rise of poster advertising. This flood of cheap paper advertisements and paper packages in the late nineteenth century created a profound shift in paper's cultural meaning. What had once been a scarce resource was now an obnoxious pollutant. Indeed, as Frances Robertson points out, “[a]lthough print culture is often celebrated as a medium of information transfer, promoting knowledge, print is also about litter.”31
The term litter became associated with the wastepaper strewn about city streets in the 1880s. The word, from the Latin term for “bed,” came to be used to describe ground coverings made of straw and other materials that served as beds for animals.32 A keyword search in databases of English-language newspapers, trade journals, and magazines of the 1800s reveals a transformation in the use of this term concurrent with the increased production of paper and urbanization.33 The majority of mentions of litter before the 1880s either define it as a useful material for hogs, horses, and gardens or as groups of puppies or kittens born together. It was occasionally used euphemistically to describe materials haphazardly strewn about the home.34 Articles published in the popular press of the day instruct mothers to discipline children who “made a litter” on the floor with their playthings.35 They advise all women to be vigilant in removing the litter that “haunts every room, drawer, shelf, table, and even chair.”36 Women also crafted creative solutions for dealing with the litter of scrap paper and cloth that would inevitably accumulate in the home. In 1877, Mrs. J. P. Worston shared a design for a “standing scrap bag” with the readers of the Detroit Free Press.37 This “modern improvement,” which also doubled as an “adornment,” could “hold the various bits of paper and waste material which would otherwise litter a sitting room.”38 Although Mrs. Worston's tips are directed at women in the domestic sphere, the fact that her expertise regarding the material life of paper provides an entrée into public life through the newspaper presages the shift that would occur in following decades, when paper litter became a public problem.
By the 1880s and 1890s, references to “litter” in periodicals were as likely to refer to wastepaper in the streets as they were to gardens and bedding for livestock or to “litter” in the home. One of the chief producers of wastepaper litter was outdoor advertising.39 As one commentator on the scene in the outskirts of St. Paul explained,
The pictures are posted up for a week and a day, and serve their purpose. Then they are scraped down in great, irregular masses to make way for their successors, and if the bill board is raised a few inches from the ground it offers so convenient and enticing a graveyard for these tattered and torn ladies and gentlemen of the stage, the fashions and cosmetics, that they are straightway thrust beneath, and this undertaker's work is done. There may be some follower who is supposed to cart away all this pasty mass of microbe-bearing and disease-breading material, but he certainly fails to find a not inconsiderable part.40
This article, though colorfully worded, was probably not overexaggerating. Outdoor advertising began as an unregulated and unruly affair. Billposters fought for prime space and spent their time and energy pasting up ever more notices, often right on top of their competitors’ posters. They rarely bothered to scrape off the old, tattered posters from the walls or to sweep the paper from the ground.
An 1898 Chicago newspaper documents this haphazard practice in an article entitled “Chicago Made Hideous by Conscienceless Billposters” (fig. 4).41 The companion illustration depicts six locations—all unoccupied buildings in downtown Chicago—on which posters for various theatrical amusements, such as The Police Patrol, Haverly's Minstrels, and Heroes of ’98, are pasted. These are not the regulated sites of display that constitute our contemporary urban landscape. Rather, billposters, armed with paste, brush, and paper, went out in the dark of night to grab space wherever they could. At issue in this article is that the billposters are taking advantage of the fact that the buildings’ owners rarely venture to visit these unoccupied spaces. The unmown grass in front of the second panel provides further proof that property owners do not take care of these buildings. In years to come, the national organization of the outdoor advertising industry would successfully self-regulate and largely eradicate this practice.42 But in the meantime, individual cities had to come up with their own solutions for removing last week's decaying paper posters. This need provided openings for a few privileged women to assert leadership roles within their communities.
Given that the removal of litter in the home was primarily a female responsibility, these public leadership opportunities make sense. Indeed, the above-cited complaint about rotting posters below billboards in the outskirts of St. Paul did not extend to the downtown area, “thanks to the housewives of the municipality” who “keep the streets clear of flying paper.”43 These efforts are early examples of what Jane Addams called “civic housekeeping,” a term she used to describe the activities of women who applied their domestic talents to “matters for collective action” such as public education, vaccination campaigns, and garbage disposal.44 Addams was not the only suffrage advocate who strategically framed women's political activity as an extension of their domestic duties. By the 1910s, this tactic was widespread, as evidenced in the prosuffrage films of the era.45 For example, in the 1912 film Votes for Women, the female protagonist becomes involved in politics because she is appalled by the abhorrently unsanitary living conditions in the tenement owned by her fiancé. The film draws an explicit parallel between her efforts to persuade her fiancé to clean up the building's hallways and improve its sanitation facilities and her efforts to convince her father to “clean up” the store he owns by putting a stop to the sexual harassment that his shop girls face.46 This parallelism demonstrates how suffragists strategically mobilized the concept of “civic housekeeping” as both a literal and a figurative description of women's political mandate. Given the opportunity, female civic housekeepers would perform and oversee domestic tasks such as sweeping and removing garbage in the public domain. Metaphorically, their housekeeping would involve rooting out corruption in city halls and moral depravity in city streets.
Even before Jane Addams coined the term, the women who set out to clean up paper in the streets had mobilized literal and figurative notions of civic housekeeping. And it was housekeeping in the literal sense that caused one Chicago women to be appointed to public office in the 1890s. Mrs. A. E. Paul became superintendent of streets in the First Ward in April 1899 after proving herself through her work as sanitary inspector for a nongovernmental organization, the Civic Federation. The Chicago Daily Tribune ran an appreciative profile of Mrs. Paul in October 1899 after she had overseen the successful and efficient cleanup of “immense quantities of litter” left in the wake of two back-to-back parades (fig. 5).47 The profile reveals how this role grants Mrs. Paul a freedom of movement not afforded to other women at the time. It approvingly notes, “Mrs. Paul is a familiar figure on the downtown streets both by day and night.”48 This is in contrast to the dominant representations of women who ventured alone in city streets, which cast them as either victims or perpetrators of sexual deviance. Indeed, the term public woman was a euphemism for prostitute.49 Granted, Mrs. Paul is not entirely alone; rather, she rides “about in her buggy directing the work” of a “force of fifty men” in her employ.50 However, Mrs. Paul's mobility is limited to those sites that are littered with debris, and her authority is legitimated by her performance of a rather conservative gender role. According to the Tribune, the reason she excels at her job is that she “applies the methods of the housewife to municipal affairs.”51
By likening her authority over city workers to a housewife's authority over her cleaning staff, this article also reveals the class dimensions of Mrs. Paul's situation. So too does her account of her path to this job in the profile. It all began, she says, when “some club women” asked her to facilitate an introduction to Chicago mayor John Patrick Hopkins so that they could present to him their desire to reform “the sanitary conditions of the city.”52 Women's clubs—groups of women who gathered around a shared interest (such as literature) or cause (such as education or sanitation reform) were common in this era of Progressive politics and suffrage debates. They were particularly popular among middle- and upper-class women who did not have to work to support their families, and who, like Mrs. Paul, had the ear of powerful men such as the mayor.
Interestingly, Mrs. Paul insists, “I am not a club woman myself.” This is likely a strategic move on her part. By distancing herself from club women and couching her civil service in the rhetoric of domesticity, Mrs. Paul downplays the threat to the patriarchal status quo that her authority constitutes. Just the same, it is precisely her work on the “domestic” issue of litter that enables her to hold public office, oversee a large group of male city employees, and move freely in public spaces at a time when women were denied the vote.
The transformations of space that the proliferation of paper entailed enabled a select group of elite white women such as Mrs. Paul to establish authority outside the home, as long as that authority was articulated in the language of domesticity. But poster advertising also transformed public spaces in ways that supposedly made them unsafe for women's traversal. A Washington, D.C.–based man traveling through Baltimore in the late 1890s proclaims in a newspaper article that the posters displayed along its streets are so amoral that “if I lived in this town I would not take my family to church because they would get more devilment on the way there than they would get religion after they got there.”53 An 1897 cartoon in the Denver Republican illustrates similar concerns about how poster advertisements transform spaces into danger zones, presenting a dystopian “view of a Denver residence block as it will soon appear if the bill board nuisance is not stopped” (fig. 6).54 Here a two-story billboard plastered with advertising posters replaces the facades of a series of row homes. Pointed roofs, chimneys, and treetops just barely peek above the top of the board. Four doorways with placards bearing the name of each resident are cut out of the otherwise uninterrupted poster hoarding. The cartoon depicts several people suffering the deleterious effects of this residential area's transformation into a platform for advertising. A distracted billposter carelessly splashes a man in the face while the latter is out for a leisurely stroll. A woman who catches the billposter's eye returns his gaze as she absentmindedly bumps the baby carriage she is pushing into his unattended paste bucket. And a little girl watches, transfixed, as two boys mimic a boxing match depicted in another poster. In case the detrimental effects of this poster are not readily apparent from the boys’ mimicry, the cartoonist depicts one of the boys in mid-fall. His opponent's hand has clearly just struck his face, and his body is at a forty-five-degree angle to the ground. These otherwise idyllic neighborhood activities—a man strolling along a sidewalk, a woman pushing a baby carriage, and a group of three children playing—are made dangerous by the encroachment of mass culture and consumerism into a residential area. If the “bill board nuisance is not stopped,” suggests this cartoon, men, women, and children will no longer be safe in front of their own homes.55
The violent imagery depicted in the poster that the boys mimic certainly informs anxieties about these posters. But little boys might also find a depiction of a boxing match in another medium, such as dime novels or moving-picture shows. In fact, the poster they imitate is an advertisement for something called a “Chimerascope,” a made-up name that is an obvious reference to one of the various moving-image attractions of the day (fig. 7). That the boys imitate a poster for moving-image entertainment is no accident: “theatrical posters” (of which movie posters and circus posters are a subset) were regularly singled out as the most offensive purveyors of sensationalized violence and lurid sexuality, and therefore the most harmful ones.56 But unlike the circus, moving-picture show, or the boxing match itself, there is no price of admission for posters. Through the poster medium, the visual experience of the boxing match spills out into the street. Even more egregiously, these posters are affixed to walls right outside middle-class homes, plain for any and all to see. The poster for this entertainment spreads the fight imagery still farther, so that even little boys who would not be allowed to attend either the actual match or the Chimerascoped version can access its violent appeal. While upstanding citizens can steer clear of cheap theaters, Kinetoscope parlors, and dance halls, they can't help but look at posters pasted all along the street.
In fact, this cartoon suggests that the incursion of outdoor advertising puts people in danger whether or not they have a direct view of its content. The little girl has her back to the posters, but their content is delivered to her via the boxing boys who mirror it. Perhaps the most dangerous effect of the advertising's invasion of this block is depicted at the bottom right of the cartoon. The woman who is strolling down the sidewalk, wheeling a baby carriage with one hand and holding a book in the other, looks over her right shoulder at the billposter, whose attention she has garnered. Like the little girl, her back is turned to the billboards. She sees neither the scandalously bare ankles and bosom of the girl in the Lulu Cigarettes ad nor the violent boxing match in the Chimerascope ad. Nonetheless, this woman is not spared from the posters’ evil effects. In fact, in her failure to properly survey her surroundings, she bumps the carriage into the billposter's paste bucket. At first glance, one might think that the worst consequence of this collision is that the paste from the bucket sloshes over its side, creating another hazard. But a closer examination reveals that the baby has been knocked into the bucket (fig. 8).
The woman's uniformlike outfit suggests that she might be a nanny or a housekeeper. Indeed, working-class women, along with children of all classes, were considered more vulnerable to the evil effects of mass media, thanks to classist logic that linked poverty to intellectual inferiority. This woman is also victim to the evils of another reviled paper product: the dime novel. She holds in one hand a book that Denver Republican readers in the 1890s would have easily recognized as a paperback of ill repute. Respectable publications of the day were not published on so thin and light a paper stock that one could hold it in one hand while wheeling a carriage with the other. While the cartoon indicts the “billboard nuisance” as the main cause of the baby's fate, it also suggests that the working-class nanny and billposter, as well as the dime novel, are at fault.
This cartoon indicates the way that content, protocols of display and reception, and materiality all come together to constitute the poster medium. Advocates for greater regulation of the emergent media were very aware of the materiality of billboards and the posters they displayed. Despite widespread antibillboard and antiposter sentiment, towns and cities were unable to pass ordinances forbidding billboards from their streets until well into the twentieth century.57 Advertisers successfully argued that this type of government regulation was an undue exercise of police power over property owners.58 Only when billboard opponents were able to link aesthetic with material and moral consequences would the courts uphold prohibitive ordinances. One obvious material consequence of outdoor advertising was that billboard structures themselves often presented physical dangers—for example, they might fall over onto people or prevent motorists from seeing street signs and traffic. A less obvious, but nonetheless interesting, connection between materiality and aesthetics was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court when it ruled against the Thomas Cusack Company's challenge to a Chicago ordinance that prohibited the erection of billboards in residential areas.59 The court declared that the ordinance was justified “in the interest of the safety, morality, health and decency of the community.”60 This decision was determined in large part by evidence presented by the City of Chicago “that fires had been started in the accumulation of combustible material which gathered about such billboards; that offensive and unsanitary accumulations are habitually found about them; and that they afford a convenient concealment and shield for immoral practices [i.e., sex].”61 According to this ruling, it is not only the content of the posters, but also the material structure and the detritus of leftover posters, that pose dangers to the morality, safety, and well-being of vulnerable members of the community.
The Webster City, Iowa, residents who demanded the censorship of posters depicting girls in tights likewise framed their objections to such posters as a concern about the images’ effects on individuals, particularly women and children, who were thought to be particularly susceptible to them. The Denver Republican cartoon highlights this by depicting the two little boys mimicking the boxing match. A 1904 Biograph film called Kiss Me! provides another, more lighthearted example of such logic, whose humor relies on audience foreknowledge of the poster-advertising debates detailed above.62 The one-reel film opens to a perpendicular view of a wall covered in large posters, each announcing a vaudeville act that would have been recognizable to contemporary audiences: Fred Irwin's Majestics, the actress Rose Sydell, Phil Sheridan's New City Sports, and the Rentz-Santley Co. (fig. 9). The viewer of the film immediately notices something different about the Rose Sydell poster. While the other three are lithographed theatrical posters, this unusual one represents Rose Sydell's actual body. She stands behind a wooden frame, surrounded by a black background that renders the space behind her two-dimensional. She wears a low-cut black dress, and her arms are entirely bare. The film's action consists of the different responses that various passersby have to Rose's image. First, two well-dressed ladies walk by without giving the posters any more attention than a passing glance (fig. 10). This was the “proper” reaction, of course: by acting as though they did not notice the posters at all, these women maintained the impression that they were above such low cultural forms. Next, two other ladies enter the scene, a mother and daughter perhaps. The younger one slows down as she approaches the Rose Sydell poster, lingering in front of Ms. Sydell's alluring pose (fig. 11). She stops in front of the poster, takes a step back, and tilts her head to the side. Her stance and the angle of her body as she contemplates the poster directly mirror Ms. Sydell's stance and angle. Her reverie goes on until the older woman forcibly breaks her stare, dragging her by the ear along the sidewalk past the camera's view. Next, a farmer enters the scene. His dress and slow gait mark him as someone from the country. He paces slowly along the sidewalk until something startles him: Rose Sydell's image has come to life! When he leans in for a closer look, she leans toward him and purses her lips, inviting a kiss (fig. 12). But before he can accept it, his wife intervenes and drags him away by the ear.
Each of these three scenes of encounter with Rose Sydell's image depicts a different approach to poster spectatorship. The first two women's disregard for the posters they pass conforms to conservative ideals about how women should behave as they move through city streets. As an 1882 etiquette book puts it, this ideal is characterized by “seeing and hearing nothing.”63 But as the contradictions inherent in Mrs. Paul's role as superintendent of streets indicate, at this moment in American history, norms regarding women's comportment in public were shifting, thanks in no small part to the rise of consumer culture and, of course, outdoor advertising.
The young girl who stops in her tracks in response to Rose Sydell's powerful image simultaneously embodies the advertiser's ideal as well as the figure of the vulnerable youth whom reformers sought to protect through poster censorship. Her emulation of the poster attests to the “new ways of seeing” that Lauren Rabinovitz links to the emergence of department stores and amusement parks at the turn of the twentieth century.64,Kiss Me! demonstrates that outdoor advertising was another important medium that “continuously shifted [women's] status between subject and object—holding her up as both the manifestation of male desire and the agent of her own desire.”65 Surely the girl recognizes that Rose's dress and pose are designed with male visual pleasure in mind. Yet, even if she doesn't, the next character to enter the scene, a man, clearly discerns the poster's sexual appeal. While the girl behaves in a way that suggests she wants to be Rose Sydell, his behavior suggests that he wants to be with Rose Sydell.
However, this spectator is not just any man: he is dressed and moves in ways that mark him as a stereotypical “country rube,” a stock character of the vaudeville stage who was often portrayed as a naïve fish-out-of-water in urban settings. Although he is the butt of the joke in comedy, the type that the rube represents—the hard-working, simple-minded rural farmer—was also one type of person whom reformers had in mind when arguing for censorship of poster displays. His inappropriate overattention, his spectatorial excess, is not dangerous just to his own well-being, but also to the health of the consumer economy that the poster was supposed to serve. Like the boys in the Denver Republican cartoon with the image of the fight, the man's desire is satisfied by the poster itself. Rather than lure him to a second location, it provides free entertainment.
While similar dynamics of looking would occur in other popular media forms of the day—the girl might mimic magazine content, and the farmer's naïve response is similar to joke films that depict a country rube mistaking moving images for reality66—there are unique aspects of the material lives of posters that are important to our understanding of their contribution to media history. The protocols of viewing posters are distinct from viewing magazine pictures because of their scale and verticality. Walter Benjamin describes how these factors impact the experience of reading script: “Centuries ago,” he says, the written word “began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book.” With the rise of outdoor advertising, script “now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisement force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.”67 Benjamin likens poster advertisements to films here on the basis of their verticality. Kiss Me! also reveals that there is an important distinction. Images pasted up on building exteriors are rendered monumental by virtue of their scale, uprightness, and outdoor placement. This accounts for the immense power that Rose Sydell's image acquires and is part of why she is able to command the girl's and the rube's attention so fully.
And yet, despite its “dictatorial perpendicular,” the monumentality of a given poster is undermined by another feature that Benjamin famously discusses: like films, posters are produced through mechanical reproduction.68 Unlike monuments such as statues or intricately carved architectural facades, lithographed posters and films are multiply produced. There is no original poster from which others are copied. Each iteration, each printing, is as authentic as the next. Furthermore, posters are mechanically reproduced on a substrate, paper, that is also a product of mechanized production. The mass production of posters on cheap paper and their mass distribution caused a proliferation of irreverent images in the guise of monumental texts. Especially in the early days before sustained regulation, billposters often plastered monumental architectural facades with these temporary temptresses of tawdry paper. Furthermore, the poster almost always exists in a field of other posters, each of which is designed as a bounded text, and each of which equally competes for viewers’ attention. Part of the danger of the poster medium, then, is that it takes on the guise of monumentality but is unable to function as a monument in the traditional sense.
In many ways, Kiss Me!, like the Denver Republican cartoon, confirms poster opponents’ worst fears about the power of the medium to command attention and transform otherwise harmless spaces into dangerous places. And yet, while the girl and the rube who are enamored with Rose Sydell's image testify to the poster's power to arrest the mobile viewer's attention, the women who pass by without looking and who reprimand family members for looking undermine the poster's power. The film also provides an antidote to the siren call of the posters. The mother and wife physically disrupt both the girl's mirroring and the man's erotically charged gaze. Here again, the paper poster transforms a public space into a site where women's authority is not merely tolerated; it is called for.
The history of the poster is also a history of paper. The historical and cultural life of paper played a key role in shaping the poster's discursive construction, its protocols of display, and its reception. The status of paper shifted across the nineteenth century from a scarce resource primarily associated with male public culture to an overproduced nuisance. But paper was never simply a masculine-identified material. Women worked in papermaking factories, and girls were taught to save their rags. Paper and its various uses shifted between masculine and feminine identification. Paper posters circulated among and helped to transform spaces. As Mrs. Paul's story indicates, the appearance of litter in the streets provided a reason for women to take charge of business districts, folding these spaces into the domain of the housewife. Advertising posters quickly and easily turned residential areas into commercial zones, rendering the design of building facades and walls as changeable and fickle as fashion. They also provided mass-producible vehicles through which women's bodies were flaunted in public spaces. Anxieties about immoral posters’ effects on vulnerable women and children were informed in part by the cultural status of the paper on which they were printed.
In demonstrating that paper technology and the protocols of interacting with the raw materials for papermaking and with paper litter constituted a crucial aspect of poster culture at the turn of the twentieth century, this article opens up further questions regarding the material history of outdoor advertising. A parallel history might track the material life of the ink and paint that mark these posters. Other lines of inquiry might investigate the materials that came to replace paper in the late twentieth century. The days of the paper poster may well be ending. Today's urban landscapes are more likely to be populated with screens than with posters. If and when the paper poster becomes totally obsolete, however, the cultural baggage attached to it will continue to play a part in constituting the outdoor advertising of the future.
I thank Lynn Eaton and the staff at David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, for their invaluable assistance while I conducted research for this essay in the Archives of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. A grant from the Graduate School at Northwestern University funded this research. I thank Caetlin Benson-Allott, Catherine Clepper, and the anonymous reader for Feminist Media Histories for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.