In 1994 Earle F. Williams was on Martha’s Vineyard when a sticker on the back of a car caught his eye. “I saw an oval decal with an MV on it,” remembers Williams.
At the time he sold sports-imprinted decals and memorabilia to colleges. His first thought when he saw the sticker was, I wonder if that thing is copyrighted. “I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t step on somebody’s toes.” Luckily for Williams, it wasn’t.
A few months later he started making his own stickers with the initials VT for Vermont. It being the Green Mountain State, he sold them in green. Since then he’s made countless versions of the white oval. This year he sold a little over a million decals, out of his house in Stowe, Vermont. That’s about half as many as he sold at the peak of his business, pre-recession.
Though Williams markets his stickers as the Original Ovals, they were actually created by the United Nations in the 1940’s, as “Distinguishing Signs Used on Vehicles in International Traffic.” They were a way to identify the country of origin on automobiles traveling through Europe.
In the U.S., they became a status symbol. EH for East Hampton, or ACK for Nantucket, secret codes that said, the driver of this car lives or vacations in America’s most elite resorts.
“I think the temptation is to be a little disdainful when you see those,” said Cornell economics professor Robert Frank. “If people were really confident of their position in life, they wouldn’t feel a need to advertise it.”
Frank says these bumper stickers in and of themselves aren’t a big deal. But they are an indicator of larger economic trends. The wealthiest Americans are building larger and more ostentatious homes. “They’re not bad people because they do that," he says. "That’s what everyone does when they get more money. But the fact they build bigger houses shifts the frame of reference for the people just below the top, they build bigger too,” And that trickles down the income ladder. Meanwhile lower and middle class wages have stagnated. So everyone ends up spending more of their income to keep up.
There is a similar competition to get into the prestigious educational institutions, not just universities, but increasingly grade schools, even preschools. “When a parent’s child gets into a prestigious institution, the first thing that happens is a decal on the back window of the car, announcing that fact to the world,” Frank says.
As for the white oval decals, David Ewing isn’t a fan. He grew up in Swampscott, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. His father was a lawyer at a Boston law firm and his roots go way back in New England. “My dad’s ancestor was one of the founders of Northampton, Massachusetts, so it was the 1600’s,” Ewing says.
He spent his summer vacations in southern Maine and Nantucket. But he says his family would never have put a sticker on their car advertising that fact. “It was against their sensibility to show off, to the world at large anyway, he says. “There was a distaste for ostentation and a distaste for -- the term when we were growing up was status symbol.”
Today Ewing lives in California and he understands the impulse to put a sticker on your car that shows where you are from. “If you are a long way from home you’re sort of waving your hand going, 'anybody else out there?'” But he says if he saw a white oval with an MV for Martha’s Vineyard or an MH for Marblehead in his neighborhood, he wouldn’t go up to the owner of that car and strike up a conversation. “I’d avoid ‘em like the plague,” he said.