No one knows exactly when advertising on the sides of reefers began, but as early as 1870 such cars were seen on some railroads. Someone had recognized that these cars would be seen by hundreds of people as they traveled to their destinations. It was cheap advertising. The early cars were primarily for meat packers, but before long produce and other commodities were being shipped in these cars.
The haydays were in the early twentieth century, especially after the repeal of prohibition, when “beer reefers” made an appearance. Although a small segment of the total fleet, the bright and sometimes gaudy displays made these cars distinctive.
Because of the soot and cinders from the engine, as well as dust and dirt, and the fading of the paint due to the sun, the cars were usually repainted every two or three years. Oft times, capriciously, the numbers were changed as well. It was not surprising to see a car with different advertising, for the company, on each side of the car.
In 1934, the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) ruled that railroads would no longer be required to handle refrigerator cars with advertising, naming products. Railroads had complained that such cars, which were leased by private companies, reduced railroad revenues, and in some cases, were guilty of the lessees receiving illegal rebates.
By 1937, all billboard reefers had been phased out and only generic information, such as the name of the company were allowed.