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Guide to the Billboard Photograph Collection
ca 1918-1934
 PR 5

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jenny Gotwals

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on August 15, 2019
Finding aid written in English.

Scope and Contents Note

The Billboard Photograph Collection consists of 226 glass and 677 film negatives which document advertising billboards at 13 Manhattan and two Bronx locations between 1918 and 1934.

Photographers photographed the same sites repeatedly, even when no advertisements appeared on the billboards. In addition to advertisements pasted on large billboards, ads for stores, films, and products were painted on the sides of buildings and are shown in smaller size posters along elevated railroad stations and on street kiosks.

The Manhattan intersections shown are Sixth Ave. & 27th St.; Times Square, Eighth Ave. & 110th St. (Cathedral Parkway); Fifth Ave. & 42nd St.; Sixth Ave. between 42nd & 43rd Sts.; Sixth Ave. & 44th St.; Sixth Ave. & 47th St.; Seventh Ave & 34th St.; Seventh Ave & 42nd St.; Madison Ave., between Fifth & Sixth Aves.; Eighth Ave. & 58th St.; Broadway & 57th St.; and 125th St. between Seventh and Lenox Aves. The Bronx locations are 166th St. & Third Ave. and Willis Ave. near 148th St. Photographs in the finding aid are identified by location; for additional information about products advertised and buildings depicted, refer to the digitized images. Indices by business, product advertised, theater and production are also available in the Collection File at the repository.

The same billboards were photographed repeatedly and show changes in product names, advertising methods, and slogans. Many products and companies advertised here continue to be in business in 2001. In addition to billboards, many businesses and buildings are shown in each shot, and these also change over the years. The Publicity Building, at the junction of 7th Avenue, Broadway, and 47th St., was photographed from different angles, allowing changes in the businesses housed within it to be tracked. This turnover is especially notable during the Depression years, when many firms failed or moved to different locations.

Billboards advertise the following categories of products: real estate; political campaigns and candidates; fundraising campaigns; banks; clothing; beverages; food products; tobacco; automobile and gasoline companies; film and theater productions and venues; restaurants and hotels; services, such as swimming and dancing schools; and other products, such as pencils and magazines. Among the best-represented products in the collection are Wrigley's Spearmint Gum, Camel Cigarettes, Union Dime Savings Bank and Armour Star Ham.

The 1920s witnessed the introduction of film industry advertising. Ads for individual movies, as well as for movie theaters, film production companies, and film sound technologies, are well represented in this collection. Films and movie theaters, as well as plays and other entertainment events (such as rodeos at Madison Square Garden) are noted within the database. Notable productions include the first sound film The Jazz Singer and Mae West's play Diamond Lil.

Billboards advertise candidates for elected office, most often in party tickets. Slogans like "Vote for Hoover and Ottinger. Continue prosperity. Vote every arrow" or "Smith and Robinson. Vote every star" appeared during the 1928 election season. The previous fall, voters had been urged to pay attention to constitutional amendments and decent housing, and to "vote no on number 6, separate state and federal elections in interest of good government" and "vote yes on all the others, more subways, improved living conditions, better state government."

Real estate, both in New York City and the surrounding areas, was also heavily promoted on billboards. Tudor City was advertised upon its completion, starting in 1927. Signs touting auctions for land or property in the Bronx and Long Island are also pictured. In addition, many signs sold Florida (or, specific cities, such as Palm Beach) as a vacation spot. These advertisements were often paid for by travel agents, although some ads for Miami were attributed to the Miami Chamber of Commerce.

During the years of the Depression in the 1930s, billboards advertising relief efforts and committees appeared, mostly in space donated by billboard companies. These signs urged New Yorkers to donate time and money to help out those less fortunate, or advertised committees formed to help the impoverished.

Before prohibition of alcohol (the Eighteenth Amendment) was enacted in 1920, a few billboards and painted signs advertised beer and liquor. Prohibition's repeal in 1933 saw a huge increase in advertising on the part of beer companies. Prepared food (such as Mueller's Cooked Spaghetti) first appears in advertising around 1928.

Arrangement Note

The negatives are arranged as they were received, by negative number, in a chronological run. Item number refers to this negative number. Indices to products advertised, dates, and locations of billboards are available on-site in the collection file, and refer to these negative numbers.