The magazine was launched in the fall of 1894 by two partners, William H. Donaldson and James H. Hennegan, as a publication for the billposting business. Donaldson was a salesman for his father's lithography company, which specialized in printing advertising posters. Hennegan also worked for a family printing firm.
Donaldson saw a need for a publication that would inform the roving bill posters of industry news. What's more, the new publication could help the Donaldson and Hennegan family printing firms stay in touch with their major clients.
The new magazine was named Billboard Advertising and was published monthly. As declared on its ornate opening page, it was "devoted to the interests of advertisers, poster printers, bill posters, advertising agents and secretaries of fairs."
That first issue was dated Nov. 1, 1894. It was eight pages long and carried a cover price of 10 cents (90 cents for a full year's subscription). The magazine was headquartered at 11 W. Eighth St. in Cincinnati, Donaldson and Hennegan's hometown.
The cover of the first Billboard Advertising carried a grainy black-and-white cameo of one R.C. Campbell, a Chicago advertising executive described within as "an infallible expert and reliable authority on that particular branch of the science of advertising embraced by the billboard."
This "science" was further explored in columns headlined Bill Room Gossip and The Indefatigable And Tireless Industry Of The Bill Poster, wherein readers learned that the bill poster "loves to be out on the street at night, when, should he discover a fire, he can bill the front of a building and then turn in an alarm."
By its first anniversary, Billboard Advertising was running a steady 16 pages; the one-year subscription was up to $1.
In June 1896, the first hints of entertainment coverage started slipping into Billboard Advertising with the introduction of a Fair Department. Here the magazine began reporting on the carnival and fair attractions that often were advertised on billboards of the day. The magazine also began running ads for such colorfully named attractions as Cook's Royal Roman Hippodrome & Equine Paradox and the high-flying LeRoy Sisters, billed as "The Dauntless Queens Of The Air."
In February 1897, Billboard Advertising made a major shift in direction. The magazine's name was shortened to The Billboard, a handle it would carry until 1961. Listings of fairs and ads for outdoor attractions began to dominate. There were diving animal acts, hot-air balloon rides, baseball-playing "Nebraska Indians" and such extravaganzas as Capt. Bob Cook's Water Show & Fireworks Co.
Meanwhile, all was not well behind the scenes. In November 1898, on the magazine's fourth anniversary, Donaldson quit the staff after a dispute with Hennegan over the magazine's editorial direction. The Billboard was in a crisis. Growth had stalled and the bills had piled up. With its creditors in pursuit, the magazine was limping toward an early death.
Standing in the wings, Bill Donaldson quickly decided it was time to take action and save the magazine. He offered to buy out Hennegan's share of the operation (for $500, according to family lore) and assume all of the debts.
Back in the saddle, Donaldson moved swiftly to steer The Billboard on a new course. In the issue dated May 5, 1900, Donaldson boldly recast The Billboard as a weekly. By midyear it was calling itself "The Official Organ of the Great Out-Door Amusement World." The focus had moved away from the bill-posting industry. The Billboard was saved.
Donaldson clearly saw show business as the future of The Billboard. Promoters of traveling attractions were his family's best customers and had become The Billboard's bread and butter, too. As an added benefit, entertainment news would prove far juicier than articles on poster-paste recipes.
Soon, the magazine was regularly placing such entertainment figures as Kearny P. Speedy, Champion High Diver of the World, on its cover. (Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West Show was a major attraction, made his cover debut the previous year.) Inside, there was a new column, Foot Light Flickerings, with items covering the always colorful, often tragic lives of the actors, acrobats, aeronauts, animal trainers, and assorted others who were entertaining turn-of-the-century America. Here was the birth of gossip, and lots of it.
The magazine gushed with sensationalism. An item headlined "Death of 'Kid' Hanner" in the issue of Oct. 6, 1900, graphically depicted the demise of the daredevil Hanner, who drifted into "the top branches of a seventy-foot elm" while hanging from a trapeze beneath a hot-air balloon. With a large crowd looking on, Hanner "fell to the ground and was horribly crushed."
Not all the violent endings were accidental. The Oct. 27, 1900, issue told the story of the actress Zora Card who "drew a revolver from the folds of her dress" and shot theatrical agent Joseph Pazen. After her arrest by Chicago police, Card accused Pazen of being part of a conspiracy to run her out of town. "My action was in self-defense, and I am very sorry I did not kill him," Card was quoted as saying.