But labels have a history that goes much further back than Stan Avery’s creation in the 1930s. How many years, decades or centuries do we travel back in time to encounter product identification on a package? Quite a few, actually. It is worth noting that most early labels appeared on beverages, such as wine and beer, and on consumable products such as fruits and vegetables. And let us not forget drugs.
Consider wine, thought to have been first produced in Greece about 6,000 years ago. As its popularity grew, a broad market grew with it. When Egypt’s young King Tutankhamen died in 1352 BCE, he was buried with his favorite libation. These wine containers contained inscribed information that indicated the wine type, the year it was made, where it was made and who made it. To the Egyptians, the most important of these inscriptions was the vintage. King Tut’s tomb contained wines from certain years only, no doubt those fit only for a monarch.
Years passed. In the early 1700s CE, a French monk named Pierre Perignon took a piece of parchment, wrote on it with his hand and attached it with a string to a bottle of wine. That’s the first wine label on record. Dom Perignon is often thought to be the creator of Champagne, but the sparkling wine predates him. His contributions to the fermentation and bottling of the wine, however, were highly valuable to the complex process.
A great leap forward for labels came in 1798, the year that Bavarian inventor Alois Senefelder invented the printing process called lithography. (Lith refers to stone; early methods used an engraved stone over which an ink roller was passed to transmit, or offset, the image to a substrate.) Lithography, of course, allowed for the mass production of labels, mostly for wine. As the process developed, wineries began to prefer a rectangular label shape that allowed for more information, as well as illustration.
Over the next 150 years, refinements in the science of winemaking led to vastly increased production, and variations in wine types, throughout France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal. That growth, coupled with greater distribution and the rise of the glass bottle industry, spawned the need to put a label on every wine bottle.
The first paper wine labels reportedly came from Germany in the 1800s. Simple in style, they contained the name of the wine and the vintage year. In the same period, Champagne labels from the large wineries were made using gold, silver and bronze for heightened decoration.
Until the late 19th century, the application of gold and other metals (mostly to book covers) was accomplished by a process called free leaf stamping. The appropriate pattern to be decorated was created using adhesive, followed by the impression of the gold leaf by hand. The object was then placed into a hot stamping press to affix the metal as securely as possible.
Gold is expensive, and its value continued to rise, making the use of real gold impractical. In the 1930s, an English foil maker named George Whiley produced a substrate composed of atomized gold on polyester film. The atomization process resulted in a stamping foil about 16 times thinner than the thinnest beaten gold, and far less expensive.
Beer labels were uncommon prior to the 1840s. In 1834, England’s duty on glass was repealed, which allowed brewers to package their liquid in bottles. The earliest were sealed by hand with the brewer’s name and the contents stamped into wax. Expansion of the beer business led to the use of a metal foil capsule, similar to those still used today for wine. These often succumbed to the rigors of transportation. The best alternative was a paper label.
From 1880 to 1890, two things happened in England. Technological advances included the expansion of bottled beer production, and the use of printed paper labels enjoyed a mighty increase. That state held until after the first world war, when many breweries merged and the British empire contracted, thus reducing beer and beer label production.
Overseas in the United States, legal beer production ceased entirely in 1920 with the advent of Prohibition, and labels for all alcoholic beverages went away. That ended in 1933 with Repeal, right around the time Stan Avery was at work on his new idea.
By the mid-19th century, label printers in the USA were visiting pharmacists to display their label books, which demonstrated the quality of their products. At that time, the labels were printed using engravings in wood, or in copper if the printer could afford the metal. Steam powered presses soon came along, and lithography was the dominant process until the 20th century.
Back then, drug labels were printed on sheets, and the individual labels, even the round ones, had to be cut by the pharmacist. One of the first label manufacturers offering trimmed labels was Phair & Company of New York City, who advertised in 1858 that its drug labels were printed and trimmed “by newly invented machinery.” (History of Drug Containers and Their Labels, by George B. Griffenhagen and Mary Bogard). These labels were essentially blank, the particulars to be written by the pharmacist by hand.
Druggists complained quite a bit about the odor of the gum that they used to affix labels, as well as its poor performance on various containers. By the 1860s, pre-gummed labels entered the scene. In 1868 a Chicago company introduced gummed and cut labels. The first postage stamps to carry a pre-applied adhesive, by the way, were introduced by Rowland Hill in England in 1840. Users were cautioned that “in wetting the back, be careful not to remove the cement.”
Still, pharmacists were not happy with gummed labels. Humid climates were the worst for such products (no air conditioning back then). One wrote, “Gummed labels are not worth the space they occupy in most climates.” Another said, “Gummed labels were invented by a poverty-threatened printer on a damp day.”
Auxiliary labels grew in popularity in the late-1800s. Commands such as Poison, Shake Well Before Using, For External Use Only, and “Caution: Be Careful to Keep This Medicine Out of the Way of Children” became common. Griffenhagen and Bogard note that Alfred B. Taylor of Philadelphia reported that he was faced by questions from patients “asking whether they should shake the bottle or shake themselves before taking the medicine; so Taylor labeled his prescriptions, ‘Shake the Vial Well Before Using’.”
Remington’s invention of the typewriter in 1874 was gradually adopted by pharmacists over the next couple of decades. By the 20th century, just about all of those blank labels were run through the old clattering machine. Labels for pharmaceutical products benefited greatly by the advent of pressure sensitive materials in 1935, but still the typewriter was employed to note the drug and all necessary particulars.
That all changed with the advent of digital printers, and I daresay fewer and fewer of us can remember typed labels.
The author is president of Jack Kenny Media, a communications firm specializing in the packaging industry, and is the former editor of L&NW magazine. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.