By Diane DeBlois
Decalcomania swept England in the 1860s and the United States in the 1870s. Invented in France at mid 18th century, it was a technique for transferring designs from one medium to another - usually a print medium to ceramic or glass. The word comes from a verb meaning to trace, but the modern short form "decal" refers to an image prepared in such a way to make transfer easy (usually with the application of water).
By the 1930s, decals were a staple of tourist life: hotels, railroads, steamships, airlines and touring companies vied with one another for eye-popping designs to slather on the sides of suitcases.
And it became popular to distribute decals for the windshield or rear window of a tourist's car. In the Great Depression, printers Kaeser and Blair of Cincinnati produced a design to discourage hitch-hikers: a die-cut hand with the thumb out, printed in black on red paper - with a large "no" on the palm.
Motor Courts of the 1930s, such as the H and H cabins in Kadoka, South Dakota, gave decals as souvenirs.
In the 1940s, even before the United States entered World War II, various agencies produced decals so that citizens could signal their support for the fight in Europe against the Germans. The Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies, out of Boston, - specifically asked donors in August 1941 to place the decal of a large V and the Morse code for V …- in the rear window of their cars: "Make your position known. Resolve that every day you will urge someone to support the Administration's foreign policy. Tell them that you stand for anything calculated to beat Hitler. Don't be modest. Your opinion counts and affects others. Keep Talking."
In New York State, one's automobile registration and inspection certificates are decals - and are the only such windshield adornments allowed by law, with the exception of parking permits. Obscuring the rear window view with tourist decals would definitely be frowned upon. But roadside attractions still produce vehicular adornment, now usually self-adhesive, so that ardent campers can cover their Winnebagos and AirStreams with colorful scraps.
(This article first appeared in Book Source Magazine.)
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