Barns are large buildings and therefore hard to miss from the highway. In the early days of automobile travel, before those large metal posts that now dot our modern highways, barns were our nation’s first billboards. Common in the Midwest and Southeastern portions of the United States, the most common early advertisements were for tourist attractions, like Rock City near Chattanooga, Tennessee, restaurants, and tobacco companies, like Mail Pouch.

Barns would be selected as they offered a large palette that could be seen from a far enough distance that people could actually read it while driving by. The side of the barn would be painted with the advertisement and certainly the landowner would be happy as it brought in another revenue stream for them.

Advertising on barns began in the 1890s and reached its height in the 1960s, with over 20,000 barns advertising Mail Pouch tobacco alone. In the 1940s Rock City began advertising on barns, promoting the view, where they advertise that you could see seven states (you can’t, trigonometry and calculus prove it) from their attraction on Lookout Mountain outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Some 900 barns served as their advertisements and some are still around.

Congress passed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 which regulated billboards along Federal highways prompting many landowners to simply paint over the advertisements. A public outcry led to an amendment to the bill in 1974 that exempted the barns calling them “heritage barns” and the National Historic Barn Preservation Act of 2001 protects barns that are over 50 years old from demolition. For the most part the medium has died out, owing to the ease and cheapness of modern billboard advertising. Ironically enough the only new barns being used for advertising are for anti-tobacco ads in West Virginia.

So, the next time you are out on a road trip and drive past a barn advertising Mail Pouch Tobacco or Rock City think of all the barn has been through. Maybe you’ll just want to take a look at Rock City. It’s still there! If you are interested in seeing if a Mail Pouch Barn is near you check out the Mail Pouch Barnstomers. This includes the barn in the photo located near Ephrata, Pennsylvania. A map of Rock City barns can be found here.