Like Batman and Robin, cat and mouse, or bacon and eggs, the Mail Pouch name and rustic barns have become permanently joined in our imaginations. Now historic landmarks, the Mail Pouch Tobacco barns began in West Virginia as one of the country’s earliest outdoor advertising campaigns.
From flood to new enterprise
The sons of a German immigrant, Aaron and Samuel Bloch ran a dry goods store in Wheeling. The young entrepreneurs started a cigar factory on the second floor of the building. In 1884, a flood ruined the grocery store but left the tobacco factory untouched. The brothers turned their full attention to tobacco products. They began collecting the cigar cuttings, added flavors such as molasses and packaged the loose chewing tobacco in pouches.
To stand out from other companies selling similar products, the Bloch brothers came up with a twist on idea outdoor billboard ads. Their billboards were barns. One or more sides of a barn visible from a highway were emblazoned with the slogan “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. Treat Yourself To The Best” in trademark yellow and white letters on a black background.
Spread across the country
At first, local painters carried out the work. By 1925, the company contracted a team of six painters, working in two-man crews, to fan out through the countryside. Each crew decided which barn to paint and offered the farmers $1 or more a year for the ad space. The farmers were glad for the cash and the protective coat of paint. The painters returned every few years to refresh the paint to keep the letters sharp.
Eventually, the signs decorated barns in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Michigan, Maryland and along the coast in California, Oregon and Washington.
From “eyesore” to icon
In 1965, the Highway Beautification Act to remove billboard “eyesores” banned painting barns within 600 feet of highways. It also threatened the existing barns with destruction. In 1974, West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph amended the law, exempting signs such as the Mail Pouch barns as historic landmarks.
To learn more about Mail Pouch barns, click here.
For comments from one of the most prolific Mail Pouch painters, read this.