When the pioneers started west across this great land of ours, did they nail messages onto the backs of their wagons?

When the pioneers started west across this great land of ours, did they nail messages onto the backs of their wagons?

"My child is an honor student in the Dutch Reformed Sunday school," for instance? Maybe "I (heart) the Louisiana Purchase"? They might have simply carved little pictures just below the wagon's canvas cover: stick figures of a man, a woman, a boy child, a girl child, and two stick-oxen.

Surely the desire to share with passing strangers one's hobbies, politics, religion and favorite sports team didn't begin with the invention of the internal combustion engine. The impulse to offer the world at large thumbnails of ourselves, our families and our lives must derive from a more fundamental urge to be noticed. That's why I assume our 19th-century counterparts did what they could to set themselves apart from all the other wagons in the train. "We survived the Snake River." "Ask about my daughter's homespun sampler." And – on a ribbon-shaped loop: Support Custer and our Seventh Cavalry."

Or maybe not. We might have been a taciturn people in those days, not given to sharing our business with every wagon to come around the bend.
Now, of course, it's a different world. No longer do we travel in one-room wagons, smooshed together for weeks with those we love best and their chickens. These days we're likely to commute to and from work alone, feeling isolated and disconnected, our only link to civilization being the voice of Linda Wertheimer on NPR. No wonder we want everyone to know we heart our Jack Russell! No wonder we want to tell the world we visited Luray Caverns! And also, 26.2!

I'm more baffled by the recent popularity of stick family profiles. The figures have ties for Dads, triangular skirts for Moms and similar accessories for smaller Boy and Girl figures. Dog and cat stick figures say "We have a pet," though I'm still waiting to see a stick hamster running on a wheel or a stick fish swimming in a bowl.

Why this urge to describe one's nuclear family unit on the car window? Almost everyone in a certain demographic can claim membership in some version of a stick-figure family; what's so appealing about sticking one's own not-that-special version on the rear windshield?

It would be different if your particular family was unusual. I for one would love to see a windshield with one stick-figure woman and 49 stick-figure cats. Couples who are separated might be, well, separated by the width of the windshield: mom over here on the left, dad way over there on the right, the kids, of course, smack in the middle.

Perhaps one of the kids is in college. The diminished family could be in one corner of the window, while the daughter is in the opposite corner with a college pennant. Should a family member be incarcerated, there he or she could be, in a spot far away from the rest of the group and behind a window with a speaking slot. I won't go so far as to suggest sticker gravestones could indicate family members who have departed, but no doubt they'd be out there. Some people have no taste at all.

Personally, I'd welcome honesty on a car's backside. I'd applaud the bumper sticker that announced the driver's child was not on the second semester honor roll. "My kindergartner is 'below average' in 'Keeps his eyes on his own work.'" Ivy League schools could make a fortune selling bumper stickers reading "My son/daughter is not a student at Harvard." After all, most students aren't, and since "average" is the message all those stick-figure families are sending, why not continue the conversation?

I realize I say all this as a person who has no bumper stickers on her car. I also have no window decals, no stick figures, no magnetic ribbons. I might affix one if I found a message that I was confident would continue to reflect my world view every day for the rest of the car's life, but so far I haven't found a sticker with that kind of longevity. Listen, I'm lucky to have found a husband who meets that requirement. I wouldn't dream of expecting to find an ideal bumper sticker too.