Find of the Week

Billboard Regulations, New York Leads the Way, 1914


An unsuccessful search in former Mayor John Pulroy Mitchel’s papers for documentation of World Pineapple Day (August 15, 1914) yielded an interesting folder titled the “Mayor’s Bill Board Advertising Commission.” And that folder of departmental correspondence provided a glimpse into City government circa 1914. 

 Typical Conditions, from "A Report on An Investigation on Billboard Advertising in the City of New York, Office of The Commissioner of Accounts," Raymond Fosdick, 1914.  Departmental Correspondence of Mayor Mitchel.

Typical Conditions, from "A Report on An Investigation on Billboard Advertising in the City of New York, Office of The Commissioner of Accounts," Raymond Fosdick, 1914.  Departmental Correspondence of Mayor Mitchel.

A reformer elected Mayor in 1913, Mitchel previously had served as the President of the Board of Alderman and temporarily as Mayor in 1910 when Mayor Gaynor was incapacitated due to a gunshot wound. Gaynor had established the Bill Board Advertising Commission and a letter from the Commission’s secretary to the new Mayor acknowledged the “rush of important matters” at the outset of the administration, reported that 2,000 copies of the Commission’s report already had been distributed throughout the country and suggested printing another 1,000. The letter further stated that the printing company “had the type standing to cover the contingency of an exhaustion of the first edition and an order to reprint.” So, in all likelihood, the type had been handset in galleys, not set using the newfangled Linotype machines, and the report printed on a letterpress.

Memorandum for the Mayor.jpg

"The Best Thing Ever Printed," Memorandum for the Mayor from Secretary Arthur Woods, undated. Mayor Mitchel Departmental Correspondence, 1914.

In any case, the letter was forwarded to the Chamberlain of the City, one Henry Bruere, Esq. for a recommendation. Bruere, a Progressive reformer who previously headed the Municipal Research Bureau was considered to be among Mitchel’s closest confidantes.  He went on to serve for a dollar a year providing guidance on fiscal policy to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, among other positions.  True to form, Bruere, who zealously searched and eliminated corruption and mismanagement, wanted to review the report prior to recommending a reprint. But, he had to locate one first.

 Olmsted Brothers letter to Mayor Mitchel requesting a copy of the Billboard Report, March 16, 1914.  Departmental Correspondence of Mayor Mitchel.

Olmsted Brothers letter to Mayor Mitchel requesting a copy of the Billboard Report, March 16, 1914.  Departmental Correspondence of Mayor Mitchel.

He was not alone.  Letters requesting copies poured in from the City of Boston Law Department, the Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architect firm in Brookline MA, the Denver Public Library, and the American City Bureau. These requests triggered a back and forth correspondence between David Ferguson, the Supervisor of the City Record, Arthur Woods, Secretary to the Mayor and the M.B. Brown Printing and Binding Company—holders of the typeset master. The Chair of the Aldermanic Committee on Finance, Henry Curran also urged a reprinting because he had introduced a bill to implement the recommendations, which was “now being so thoroughly discussed throughout the City, that there is a constant demand for copies of the report.” He too noted that the printer “held the type and concluded that the expense should be small.”

But the printer disagreed!  In response to Ferguson’s request the company claimed that it lost more than $100 on the original job and would not budge from a price of $320 for 1,000 copies, or $270 for 500 copies. The cost to reprint included the cost of “holding” the type, which amounted to more than $100, and other incidentals. Secretary Woods responded that the price was too high and that “the fact that we discovered a few more in the cellar the other day” made it possible to do without the reprint.

Letter from Mayor's Secretary, Arthur Woods, to David Ferguson, Supervisor of the City Records, March 26, 1914.  Departmental Correspondence of Mayor Mitchel, 1914.

A search of the Municipal Library produced  a copy of the 1913 report. In addition, The American City, a compendium of reports and advertisements on matters related to cities (and whose editors, as documented in the departmental correspondence, requested two copies) summarized the report and publicized its availability at the Mayor’s Office for the sum of 10 cents. Further, this publication reported that the lots on which billboards stand frequently become a dumping place for refuse.  One billboard company posted notices warning that dumpers would be prosecuted, at the suggestion of one Mrs. Flora Spiegelberg “during the spring clean-up campaign in New York.”

The National Municipal Review, published by the venerable National Civic League in 1914 reported on “The New York Billboard Situation” called the Commission’s report admirable and repeated it’s statistics of “approximately 3,700 billboards in the city, of which fully 25 per cent are double-deckers, making about 46,000 facings for advertisements and including approximately 3,800,000 square feet of billboard ‘beauty’ in New York.” 

It turns out that billboards were problematic throughout the country—hence the large demand for the Commission’s report. The American City lamented the motion filed by billboard companies to withdraw their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of decision by Missouri’s highest court upholding the right of St. Louis to regulate billboards. Termed a “keen disappointment” because there would not be a definitive ruling on the right to regulate billboards for some time to come.

 Typical Conditions.  Illustration from "A Report on An Investigation of Billboard Advertising in the City of New York,"  Office of the Commissioner of Accounts, Raymond Fosdick, page 37, 1914.  Departmental Correspondence of Mayor Mitchel, 1914. 

Typical Conditions.  Illustration from "A Report on An Investigation of Billboard Advertising in the City of New York,"  Office of the Commissioner of Accounts, Raymond Fosdick, page 37, 1914.  Departmental Correspondence of Mayor Mitchel, 1914. 

Back in NYC, the Board of Aldermen had considered Mr. Curran’s proposal to regulate billboards for three months. During that time the lawmakers gathered input from the Real Estate Board, billboard industry and several civic bodies. On May 26, 1914, by a unanimous vote of the 55 members present an amended version of the ordinance was passed. Thereafter billboards fell under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Buildings and were limited in size and placement.