KU News Release
Feb. 14, 2011
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, 785-864-8855
Researcher works to preserve bumper stickers, a Kansas invention
LAWRENCE — Whitney Baker typically spends her time repairing and maintaining rare books and manuscripts, busy with conservation of covers, pages and end sheets. But recently, the associate librarian at the University of Kansas Libraries has been developing new methods to safeguard a less-typical holding in a library’s collection: bumper stickers.
“I was in Spencer Research Library one day and noticed a patron using bumper stickers,” said Baker. “So it got me thinking about bumper stickers — how they are preserved and what they are made of. I realized I hadn’t seen any information in our professional literature about their manufacture or preservation.”
To develop preservation protocols, Baker took a sabbatical and conducted extensive research into bumper stickers, traveling to institutions with large collections in Washington, D.C., and Texas.
As Baker delved into the origins of bumper stickers, she found that their history led back to Kansas.
“It’s generally accepted that they were developed in the late ’40s and early ’50s,” Baker said. “Most people attribute the creation of the bumper sticker to a man named Forest P. Gill, who was a screen printer from Kansas City, Kan. His company is still in the Kansas City area, just down the road. So I think we can claim the bumper sticker as a Kansas invention.”
Soon after their development, bumper stickers became popular as souvenirs of travel, sporting events and county fairs, according to Baker. They also were employed to mount public safety campaigns and were first manufactured for political reasons during the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential races of 1952 and 1956.
Scholarly bumper sticker collections exist in libraries and institutions across the nation — KU has four separate collections, for instance — but the diverse materials involved in making bumper stickers render them difficult to preserve without special measures.
“The earliest bumper stickers were printed on paper,” said Baker. “They were usually screen-printed. Early on they used daylight florescent inks so they would glow. As time progressed, vinyl became more important because paper stickers wouldn’t hold up to the environment. They also lefty a gummy residue that people didn’t like on their cars. So the adhesives have changed to more removable types.”
These varied materials in bumper stickers pose problems for archivists, Baker said. For instance, if left together in a stack, they can adhere together. Furthermore, bumper stickers made of vinyl emit gasses that can damage nearby paper and silver-based photographs.
“There’s not a perfect solution for storing them,” said Baker. “These are tenaciously adhesive items. They need to be separated from one another, separated from other materials, and stored upright.”
With Baker’s scholarly interest in bumper stickers and their production and protection, it might be expected that the KU researcher has a few choice examples displayed on the back of her own vehicle. But she does not.
“I have actually never put a bumper sticker on a car,” Baker said. “In fact, I’m a pedestrian most of the time — not a big car person. But I always enjoy seeing them. They’re ubiquitous, but they’re also very vulnerable. So I find them important to collect, since they’re such a part of American popular culture.”
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