Can labels brought art to the aisles

People, at the height of summer long ago, typically ate fresh foods. Like Aesop’s fabled ant, however, they also pared, parched, and preserved victuals for the coming winter. They squirreled away onions, carrots, and potatoes in root cellars. They potted meats. They simmered windfalls of plums into prune jam and transformed mountains of cabbages into crocks of briny sauerkraut for winter soups. They put up fruit juices and wines.

Then Napoleon Bonaparte, declaring that “an army marches on its stomach, revolutionized it all. Aware that his troops suffered seasonal hunger and malnutrition, the general offered a substantial cash prize for anyone who could come up with a reliable, commercial system of food preservation.

Entrepreneurs first tried preserving cooked food in glass jars corked tight, like bottles of wine. Since most foods are less acidic than wine, however, much eventually spoiled. By 1810, they replaced glass, impractical on the battlefield, with less expensive air-tight metal cylindrical canisters (cans, for short). These first cans, handmade of tin or wrought iron, served their purpose, but were so thick-walled that hungry soldiers had to crack them open with rocks or bayonets.

Civilians, on the other hand, initially considered metal cans a novelty. Only when more and more people left their country life for the cities, did the public come to appreciate the convenience of canned food.

By the 1860s, factories on both sides of the ocean were turning out thinner cans made of steel, as well as easy-to-use manual can openers. As rival canning companies emerged, they competed for the growing market by offering customers an increasing variety of products at lower prices. This allowed homemakers to offer their families out-of-season produce at will.

Still, transporting bulky, heavy canned foods could raise prices considerably. Chicago’s Sears & Roebuck Company, which shipped products by rail, suggested saving money by “getting your neighbors to join you in making up a large order.” Many did.

Now for pennies a can, farmers in South Dakota and Kentucky could savor “very fancy” Maine sweet corn or Alaskan salmon. Blacksmiths in Kansas could sample cove oysters or Little Neck clams and homemakers in Indian Territory could whip up blackberry or rhubarb pies year round.

Anyone who has puzzled over the contents of unmarked metal food cans appreciates the value of labels. So do collectors. Many enjoy tracing the history of early canning—from the California Fruit Canners Association to the California Packing Corporation to Del Monte’s, for example, through their labels. Most of these earlier ones feature simple, colorful displays of their contents, panoramic views of orchards or fields, or detailed scenes from nature. These beauties, with typically a minimum of lettering, are often heavily varnished as protection from moisture, and are, of course, very fragile.

By the 1920s, offset printing, with its use of ready-made images, was producing intricate, sharp, exciting label designs. Enterprising manufacturers, to catch the consumer’s eye, now replaced earlier, simple scenes with more persuasive fare. Lifelike newspaper boys now hustled beets, Indian maidens displayed baskets of juicy tomatoes, and angels on high marketed “heavenly plums.”

During the Depression years, when people were concerned with value as much as taste and convenience, labels’ graphics became slightly smaller, allowing space for nutritional information.

The greatest number of canning labels was printed between 1940 and 1960, as the cost of printing decreased and the U.S. population markedly increased. Canning company brand names, set boldly against solid backgrounds, sometimes replaced images entirely.
From 1960 onward, canning labels were redesigned to include bar codes. This helps to date them.  

Why collect canning labels? Many people are simply charmed by their beauty or their historical value. Some, who hail from lithograph or newspaper printing backgrounds, value their graphics. Others, like collector Dwayne Rogers, raised on a family pear orchard, came to labels naturally.

Mr. Rogers, known to label enthusiasts as the Labelman, began collecting fruit crate labels while employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Finding them prohibitively expensive, up to several thousand dollars apiece, he soon switched to collecting smaller canning labels. He observes that a hundred year old can label generally costs no more than a hundred dollars, while those with printing imperfections, signs of handling, tears, and creases, are worth considerably less.

Mr. Rogers collects pre-1920 labels from Northern California, as well as those that are personally meaningful. Other collectors seek labels featuring particular products, just pineapples, pumpkins, or fruit cocktail, for example. Some go for the graphics, concentrating on bright, colorful backgrounds, pumpkins, images of Native Americans, or bucolic farm scenes. Many collectors who once fished Alaskan waters or worked at her canneries, prize salmon labels.

Canned food labels either lend themselves to display, in scrapbooks, albums, or in and around the home – but should never be glued or taped. A selection of blueberry or peach labels, for example, matted and framed, would make a lovely gift for the family baker, or could add the perfect touch to a kitchen or dining room. Covering suitably sized modern metal cans with vintage labels is another way of displaying a prized collection. 

Cans are round. So why do many labels, unused, lie flat? Between 1920 and 1950, manufacturers often printed thousands upon thousands of them, without anticipating that droughts or freezes were likely to limit crops. For decades, these extras languished, in their original bundling, in packing or canning houses. Today, as old buildings are razed to make way for new, many flat labels surface.

Most cans are opened quickly, and then quickly discarded, along with their labels – but not all. Forgotten cans of pepper pot soup, stray cans of tomato paste, and Heaven-knows-how-old cans of ravioli always seem to be hiding on the back shelves of kitchen pantries. Point in fact, in the 1950s, my grocer grandfather, on retiring, stocked up on cases and cases of special-rate cans of cling peaches. “Everybody likes peaches,” he explained. Twenty years later, all his closets were still stacked with peaches.

That’s a lot vintage canning labels.