Bumper stickers from the Spencer Research Library
Whitney Baker, a conservator for the Kansas University libraries, traveled the country looking at ways to preserve bumper stickers for months. She found that the witty, slogan-carrying stickers may have their roots in Kansas. These bumper stickers are from the Wilcox collection at KU's Spencer Research Library.
Though she’s seen thousands of bumper stickers, Whitney Baker isn’t all that interested in what they have to say. She’s more interested in keeping them around for a long, long time.
She’s a conservator for the KU Libraries and took a five-month sabbatical to go around the country to look at bumper stickers, and she’s learned a lot about how to preserve them for others.
And, OK, she’s found a few pretty funny ones, too.
Many appeared on the late radio host Paul Harvey’s show. Harvey would ask people would send him funny bumper stickers, and he would them read aloud over the air.
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Some of her favorite slogans, Baker said, talk about simply being a bumper sticker.
“Save paper. Ban bumper stickers.”
“Don’t remove this bumper. It’s holding my sticker on.”
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During her research, she found that the history of bumper stickers points back to Kansas. Many credit Forest Gill, a screen printer from Kansas City, Kan., with developing the idea. He founded Gill Studios Inc., which today operates out of Lenexa.
Gill’s son-in-law, Mark Gilman, today is chairman of the board for the company.
He said Gill developed an adhesive paper sticker to replace cardboard signs tied to bumpers that were beginning to gain popularity at the end of the 1930s and early 1940s.
Though many have said the concept can be traced back to Gill, that’s not something the company has definitively established, Gilman said.
“We don’t claim that he did it,” Gilman said, but they do know that Gill had a major role in the early stages of bumper stickers.
He established the sizes that remain popular today. And he popularized the use of Day-Glo colors on several early stickers.
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Some of the slogans are fiery — it’s probably easier to say some of these things while you’re sitting anonymously in your car.
“If you smoke, please inhale only.”
“Footprint of the American Chicken (with a peace sign)”
“Be Different: Love your wife.”
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Baker’s interest is in preserving the stickers. She’s learned lots about the chemistry of the adhesives used, and how to best store them. KU has stickers in several different places. Last week, she was displaying a few from the Wilcox Collection in Spencer Research Library.
Baker said there are a variety of ways they’re useful.
Many times, things like bumper stickers and other (big library word alert) ephemera like fliers and other papers don’t stick around.
“Even though bumper stickers are popular and people put them on their cars and on their walls, finding them in a library isn’t always easy to do,” said Sherry Williams, curator of collections at KU’s Spencer Research Library.
The Wilcox Collection has many such items from both extremes of the political spectrum. It’s used by many different scholars. Bumper stickers — especially political ones — can come in handy, because they’re easy to place in time, Baker said. Many have dates on them, and they can tell researchers a lot about the issues people were concerned about at a particular time.
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Some of the slogans are just silly.
“Down with zippers.”
“Start a movement. Eat a prune.”
“Nebraska — where the East peters out.”
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Baker said she’s come to realize that people can easily identify with bumper stickers.
“It triggers personal memories for people,” she said. “A time or a place. They’re very good at conveying a lot with a few words.”