Is A College Bumper Sticker Tantamount To Bragging?

Just in time for college admissions season, a primer on the history of the bumper sticker. (Steve Snodgrass/flickr)
Just in time for college admissions season, a primer on the history of the bumper sticker. (Steve Snodgrass/flickr)

Beginning this week, college stickers will slide out of the fat envelopes of lucky families all across Boston. My son is a high school senior, so while awaiting his admission decisions, I’ve been pondering the most pressing question of all: How are we going to pay for this? But another nagging question has also been on my mind: To stick or not to stick?

Besides the bills, bumper stickers are one of the only things that parents receive after years of violin lessons, soccer games, tutors and homework meltdowns. They are like the small prize inside the box of Cracker Jack. Not exactly the point, but still exciting anyhow.

Bumper stickers predate the Facebook status update by almost a century, but their content and tone differ only slightly. Bumper stickers have been used to announce vacation destinations, alliances and political preferences since the advent of the car. Yes, it’s true: we’ve always used the rear end of our roadsters to toot our own horn.

Early cars did not technically have the wide girdles we now think of as bumpers, but they did have appendages off of which to hang signs. For example, suffragettes from Illinois embarked on a series of road trips in the state during the early 1900s using the car as a public platform and an object of what historians have called “ritual decoration.”

Yes, it’s true: we’ve always used the rear end of our roadsters to toot our own horn.

The bumper sticker as we know it was first developed after World War II by a silk screen printer from Kansas City. He realized that adhesives developed during the war could be paired with vinyl. The end result would allow for both the easy application and wear resistance required for a sticker that would survive the elements for long periods of time.

The widespread use of cars increased tourism and marketers took note. Travelers wanted a souvenir and those who ran the destinations needed a way to get the word out about their remote attractions. Early bumper sticker destinations included Marine Gardens, Florida and Seven Falls near Colorado Springs. New Englanders may recall the omnipresent, “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” sticker.

Bumper stickers also figured prominently in political campaigns. Historians cite the 1952 race between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson as the first presidential race in which bumper stickers were used widely.

The 1960s brought the ubiquitous “Make Love, Not War” sticker. The women’s movement gave us “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History” -- a slogan that ironically originated with a scholarly dissertation on Puritan burial rituals.

So where do I come out on this topic? Will I toot my son’s horn on the back of my big blue Honda Pilot? It was a swift conversation at my house. And the answer was a resolute “No” from my son. To a generation raised online, the bumper sticker is irrelevant. As in, “No, Mom. That’s weird."

From my son’s point of view, his college acceptance is his achievement, not mine, and he doesn’t want it advertised on my car. Although, I admit I was disappointed, I respect his line of reasoning.

Luckily, I recently received a fat envelope of my own. I won admission to a prestigious writer’s residency in Illinois. Three weeks of time to write at an old mansion overlooking the prairie with a chef on duty five nights a week to cook. Out of the envelope slid an oval sticker marked with the name of the writer’s retreat, Ragdale.

I pasted that baby on my buggy in no time flat. Call it an act of ritual decoration or just plain-old bragging. So if you want to check on my status or my location or my affiliation, skip my Facebook page and do it the old-fashioned way — check out my bumper.


Headshot of Nancy A. Nichols

Nancy A. Nichols Cognoscenti contributor
A former senior editor at The Harvard Business Review, Nancy A. Nichols is the founder of the Great Ideas Studio.



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