Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Bene vixut, bene qui latuit*

I've always liked bumper stickers - reading them, not displaying them. I am pretty much of an introvert when it comes to sharing my opinions. Or having the viewpoints of other people pushed upon me.

But when those same beliefs are pitched with a pithy slogan on a piece of paper affixed to the rear of a motor vehicle, then I willingly and lovingly read what they have to say - sometimes even violating the laws of the road to do it. Unfortunately there don't seem to a lot that are worth taking those chances for anymore.

I checked the internet for the history of bumper stickers and didn't find much at all. According to

Evidently, the first bumper stickers came about before WWII and were attached with metal wire wrapped around the bumper. After WWII, bumper stickers became useful in political campaigns. Once it caught on as a popular way to "get the message out", advertisers grasped the concept for commercial purposes and then came the broad appeal to use them for all kinds of slogans, often just for a laugh.

The true "king of the bumper sticker" is Forest P. Gill, a silk screen printer from Kansas City. Gill founded 'Gill-line' in 1934 from his basement, and later realized the possibilities of replacing the bumper wire attachment method by experimenting with pressure sensitive stock, hence inventing the modern bumper sticker which is in use today. Gill-line has developed into a multi-million dollar corporation with modern production facilities adding up to 240,000 square feet of operational space. Today, bumper stickers are big business, with millions of bumper stickers being produced and sold every year.

The last statement is probably true, based on the number of sites listed in Google that sell them. But judging by what I see in my neck of the woods about ninety percent of them refer to the academic or social achievements of "My Child". Or are variations on that theme such as "My Rottweiler is Smarter Than Your Honor Student."

I conducted an unofficial survey of bumper stickers during my two auto trips today. Of the hundred or so vehicles that I saw only two had auto decals of any kind - a pickup truck that said "Dirt, Snow, Rocks for Dinner - US Army" and a 1990's compact car advertising the public alternative radio station at which Mars and at I happen to volunteer. (I didn't know the driver.) Maybe people today are more concerned with preserving the resale value of their cars than in using them as a billboard for their beliefs - especially with the ubiquitous availability of other venues such as talk radio, blogs, and chat rooms to convey their thoughts.

My own recollection is that bumper tickers were much more prevalent in the "good" old days, like the Vietnam War era - and much more clever. But forced to give actual examples all that I can remember is "War is Not Healthy For Children and Other Living Things" which I'm not certain that I actually ever saw on a moving vehicle (it is kind of wordy) and "What If They Gave A War and Nobody Came".

I'm sure there were more.

From that same era, one of my neighbors up the street was displaying a Kennedy/Johnson political sticker during the recent mid-term elections. Since there were no candidates by that name it was, I suspect, a not so subtle dig at the perceived quality of the current stable of office seekers.

Or at the utter unoriginality of their campaign stickers. Other than the "Stick With Joe" (Lieberman) decal - which I actually liked quite a bit because of its self-referential message - the rest were duller than the non-chrome bumpers to which they adhered.

All of which is a long way of explaining that when Mars and I do see particularly worthwhile or unusual bumper stickers we try to digitally capture them.

Such as the first picture above - decals for sale at a Classic Car Show in coastal North Carolina. As I was taking the picture the purveyor of these messages asked if I was with the FBI. I assume he was joking. I was going to ask him if you had to own a pickup truck with a gun-rack in order to display one of these signs but I decided against it - not being sure if he would realize that I also was kidding.

And the two different sets of opinions that we found displayed in northern New Mexico last autumn - one on the back of a Sports Utility Vehicle in downtown Santa Fe, and the other mounted on a motorcycle parked at the square in the Old Town part of Albuquerque. Although philosophically I agree more with the SUV billboard I think the chopper display wins hands down for its simple, direct message. And, like the Lieberman sticker, for the fact that its message and its display case just go so perfectly well together.

As for us - we have no true bumper stickers on either of our vehicles - just a blue "Save The Manatees" magnetic ribbon on our Jeep. If I did have one it would probably say: "My beliefs are too private to be expressed publicly - except one."

* "He lives well who is well hidden" - Rene Descartes

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