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The Evolution of Billboard Magazine

Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 List celebrated its 57th anniversary yesterday, although the magazine had published song lists earlier. Billboard itself is over 100 years old, and was founded as a different kind of magazine, one with a mission that reflected its name: an advertising trade periodical, focused on circuses.

According to a history written by his grandson, Roger S. Littleford, Jr., the founder of Billboard, William H. “Bill” Donaldson, built the magazine to serve an entirely different need. Donaldson worked for the family business, a Newport, Kentucky-based lithography shop that churned out advertisements and posters for the circuses, fairs, and other traveling shows that criss-crossed the country. Donaldson realized that most of his clients—the managers and owners who ordered the posters, and, especially, the billstickers tasked with staying one step ahead of the shows and pasting the posters to every available surface—lacked permanent addresses, and thus were unable to communicate with each other.

In 1894, Donaldson started to spend his nights and weekends putting together Billboard Advertising, a trade publication dedicated to gathering all the news that might be relevant to his more itinerant peers. The first issue, published that November, had eight pages of relevant tidbits, laid out in columns like “Bill Room Gossip” and “The Indefatigable And Tireless Industry of the Bill Poster.” Now the “advertisers, poster printers, bill posters, advertising agents, and secretaries of fairs,” as the issue categorized them, could pick up a magazine at a newsstand anywhere in the country and know what to expect on the opposite coast.

The magazine went through a lot of changes since then. Read all about it at Atlas Obscura.


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