This blog explores the history of Phoenix, Arizona and a little bit of Los Angeles and San Francisco, California. This blog is not supported by advertising, it's supported by the generosity of my patrons on Patreon. Thank you!

The billboards of Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona had a LOT of billboards in the mid-twentieth Century. I don't remember them, so apparently by the time I got to Phoenix, in the late 1970s, they were going away. And the reason that I know about the billboards is the Duke University Digital Collections website, which has a large digital collection of old-time advertising, including billboards. And of course people who grew up in Phoenix remember the billboards.

I'm a Graphic Designer, so I've designed billboards, and ads, but like most people I'd really rather not see them all over the place. And billboards were the "pop-up ads" of the mid-twentieth century. If you remember "Ladybird" Johnson, the First Lady of President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, you may recall that she was instrumental in getting rid of a lot of billboards that had infested America's Highways. She helped beautify America.

Phoenix has always had a lot of empty lots. And empty lots attract billboards. And like internet advertising, they tend to attract the worst designs - jarring, designed to be "eye catching", but mostly annoying. And in old Phoenix it was even worse.

It's hard to imagine nowadays, but cigarette and liquor billboards were very common. If you go to the Duke site and search for "whiskey" you'll get a lot of images, and hundreds of them will be billboards in Phoenix.

Bob's Big Boy in the 1960s, looking north on Central towards Thomas. Note the billboard that I cropped out of the image on the left. This is what I do - I find the image, I optimize it in Photoshop, crop the billboards out as best I can, and save the image.

Of course I'm not on the Duke site because I'm interested in billboards, I'm interested in Phoenix. And since the images are indexed by what's on the billboards, not what's in the background, it takes a fair amount of time, going through the images one by one, zooming in, and trying to recognize places in Phoenix. Some locations are easier to recognize than others, and I like to see things like Camelback Mountain, and street signs, whenever possible. But remember that the photos were taken of the billboards, not of the backgrounds, which were incidental.

I do this for fun, because it's my hobby, and apparently because I'm more than just a little bit crazy. It started for me when I started teaching Graphic Design, and I used images of old Phoenix just to practice with Photoshop, or creating websites. And then little by little it became an obsession with me. I love finding old photos of Phoenix, and I love sharing them. If you like them, please let me know. You can support me on Patreon, or you can replace a billboard with a tree, if you can. Because Phoenix wasn't always a city of billboards, it was a city of trees. Thank you!

Image at the top of this post: Billboard on McDowell and 52nd Street in the 1960s, Phoenix, Arizona. The Papago Buttes are in the background. You're looking east.

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