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Though I’m a lifelong Washingtonian, my all-time favorite museum is not part of the Smithsonian. It is the Museum of Beverage Containers and Advertising, located in Millersville, Tenn., an obscure exurb north of Nashville. Not that it’s a museum in the conventional sense; it’s basically a warehouse addition to the house of a family that has collected soda cans, soda bottles, beer cans, and beer bottles with such obsessiveness that its collection now apparently ranks as the world’s largest. It includes cone-tops, punch-tops, pull-tops, pull-tabs. Cans of Busch, cans of Bosch. Cans featuring hunting scenes, cans with skimpily clad babes on them. Shelves and shelves of black-and-white “Generic Beer” cans. “Pet sodas” called Puppy Pop and Pussy Pop. And beer called Phartz that features a skunk as its mascot.
Given this history, I must admit that I’m something of a sucker for books like The Label Made Me Buy It. Ralph and Terry Kovel, authors of more than 75 previous volumes about antiques, have long counted labels among their very favorite specialties, and it shows. Much of what makes their book so winning is the subject matter: food labels that date from the golden age of lithography, which ran approximately from 1909 to 1939. It may be hard for anyone below the qualifying age for AARP to possess a mental image of pre-World War II lithograph labels, but once seen, they are nothing less than stunning. (The authors and publisher deserve separate credit for producing a book with first-rate reproduction quality, era-appropriate typefaces, and an overall stylish design.)
Perhaps equally important, you can also use the book’s featured labels to glean historical nuggets. Smoke-belching factories, the authors point out, were frequently used on labels during the 1800s and early 1900s because they were considered symbols of health and progress. Today, they would give off precisely the opposite vibe. Other examples abound. Long before ingredient disclosures were required, one company thought it of urgent importance to notify customers that their product was “packed by white girls only.” A brand called Fat Pak—featuring an obese boy as its mascot—would hardly fly in our health-conscious era. Nor would a Bartlett pear grower’s calling its brand “Hustler” (despite using a smiling, innocent-looking newsboy as its symbol). It’s equally interesting to learn that in an age when condoms were barred in many states, manufacturers printed on their packages that “[t]he within articles are manufactured to be used for the Prevention of Contagious Diseases only and upon proper prescription by Physicians practicing Medicine and must not be used for any other purpose.” I’m sure that advice was about as widely followed as the following Prohibition-era notice on a Puritan brand malt sugar syrup container: “Warning: Do not use for making intoxicating beverages.”
The portrayals of women on labels are especially revealing (sometimes literally so). In the late 1800s, labels featured long-haired, plumpish women. (One such label, a Sure Cure tobacco lithograph, portrays a doctor taking the pulse of a shy-looking, but presumably hysterical, patient in her sumptuous Victorian sitting room.) As the flapper age rolled around, thin models and boyish cuts were suddenly in. In the 1940s, citrus-crate labels featured pinup girls and Hollywood starlets. By the 1950s, label women had turned into Stepford wives, à la Betty Crocker. (I’m not convinced, however, that the authors are correct when they contend that Little Bo Peep was, or is, “a sexual fantasy figure.”)
More troubling are the ethnic stereotypes, from broken-English-speaking Indians to Irish drunkards to bare-breasted Polynesians. Worst of all are the images of African-Americans—usually buffoonish caricatures with thick, red lips who are shown speaking exaggerated dialects. Impossible as it is to believe, the Aughinbaugh Canning Co. of Biloxi, Miss., actually sold Nigger Head brand tiny cocktail shrimp until after World War II, although at some point the company saw the light and changed the name to Negro Head. As late as the mid-1950s, another company, Mista Joe brand vegetables, featured a label with a servile black railroad porter handing a white couple a salad. While the Kovels provide a valuable service by bringing these obscure bits of Americana to light, their nonchalance is, to be honest, a bit unnerving. The authors seem to be so caught up in their collector mind-set that they dismiss these artifacts far too lightly. Reflecting on a 1947-1948 “Dixie Boy” brand firecracker package that features a grotesque, watermelon-eating black boy, the authors write that the character was “a popular figure” from the Uncle Remus stories and add only (and blandly) that the image is “no longer well accepted” in America. The authors note that using stereotypical characters “may have showed bias or bigotry, but it was also good business to ridicule those racial, religious, and regional minorities who probably would never be interested in the product anyway. Remember that in the 1890s the vast majority of the population was English-speaking and white.” I hate to stand in for the P.C. police, but this is an astounding degree of cultural tone deafness for authors who are savvy enough to tell a 1920s serving tray from one made in the 1930s.
Racial sensitivities aside, the scariest stuff in this book is arguably the realization that the food being advertised was often grotesque. Neptune brand shrimp warned buyers, “Should the lining in this can be discolored, it will in no way affect the quality of the shrimp.” That must have inspired confidence, yesiree. Elsewhere, the authors point out that one early can-making technology produced “a soldered top that could be opened by dropping a hot coal on the top that melted the lead solder.” In another characteristic understatement, the authors add that today’s consumer “would be concerned about lead contaminating the food.”
Surely, few of us would volunteer to go back to those primitive packaging days. Yet the book does remind us that many of these old labels had a refreshing bluntness. Though FeDog dog and cat food was clearly not intended for human consumption, the manufacturer still took pains to note—on prime label real estate—that the product was made from “gizzards, skin, hearts and jelly of chicken or turkey, fresh carrots, rice and soya grits.”
Even more striking are the manufacturers who printed over old labels to save money, even though they knew they would not be able to hide their tracks entirely. For instance, when J. Sneider & Sons of Biddeford, Maine, plopped hand-me-down labels on their tins, their printer crossed out—but left still legible—the words “extra quality.” For citizens of our cynical age, such candor might almost make up for the crap they were feeding us. CP