The Lost History of Bill Sticking

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At the end of our street is a long-abandoned shop, with one broken-down wall covered in posters. Some of my neighbours think it as an eyesore. But I like it. There are new posters every week and they help me keep up with what is going on.

Bill sticking on abandoned walls has always been part of the city. In the days before radio and moving pictures, especially, slapping up posters was one of the best ways to advertise new entertainments, products, and political causes. Promoters hired bill stickers to paste up wherever they could, over the top of rival bills if possible, doing their best to avoid irate property owners. It was not a very reputable occupation.

There is not much evidence of it in photographs. Bill-clad walls were not seen as scenic by early photographers. One of the few examples I could find was this one, looking down Lambton Quay in the 1860s. Dimly visible with a magnifying glass are bills advertising a ball, the South Island goldfields, and the next sailing to Lyttelton.

Such bills can be a rich record of social history, but only a tiny fraction survive. Most were soon pasted over, or slowly disintegrated in Wellington's wind and rain. Here is a sample of some of the survivors from the Turnbull Ephemera Collection. The earliest bills were simple text on plain paper, like this angry call, from 1857, on behalf of the Irish. By the end of the century new technology allowed more illustration and gaudy colour.

During the middle decades of last century the City Council managed to suppress most unruly bill sticking. By the 1970s, though,there was a bill sticking comeback, fostered by a lively new music scene, and a plethora of radical political causes. Eventually the Council gave in and erected poster bollards around the city. Nowadays it is a relatively orderly business, mainly run by Phantom Bill Stickers. They give copies of many of their posters to the Turnbull Library, thereby helping preserve the modern history of bill sticking.

First published in FishHead, July 2013 (since reedited)

Bill sticking

(Clockwise from top left): "Fire walking fanatics....", Poster, ca 1914, Eph-D-Cabot-Variety-1900s-01 ; "Irishmen! Rally round....", Poster, 1857, Eph-B-Immigration-1857-01 ; "Queen of the night", Poster, 1909, Eph-E-Drama-1909-01; Lambton Quay, 1860s, photographer unknown,  PA2-2589. All images from the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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