THE LABEL MADE ME BUY IT: FROM AUNT JEMIMA TO ZONKERS–THE BEST-DRESSED BOXES, BOTTLES, AND CANS FROM THE PAST, by Ralph and Terry Kovel, Crown Publishers, Inc., 214 pages, $40.
History, which is often sought in monuments, can also be found in humble objects, as Ralph and Terry Kovel demonstrate in their new book, The Label Made My Buy It, a survey of label art as found on (mostly) American bottles, cans, boxes, and other packaging from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1970s. Collecting packaging labels is a serious enterprise, and the Kovels, who have written extensively on collectibles and antiques, are well qualified to write about it. Their book is an effective introduction for anyone tempted to enter the field.
Cultural and social historians could find much to say about the subtle messages that lay behind the surfaces of labels, but such issues do not greatly concern the Kovels, who have clearly intended to put their book at the service of collectors rather than analysts of American civilization.
The writing is serviceable, if not inspired, and there are a few questionable or inaccurate statements. The “Union Square Brand” label almost certainly refers to San Francisco’s Union Square and not Manhattan’s, and not only is “1910 Victorian home” an oxymoron, but the house pictured on the “American Home” label seems to be of the Prairie or Craftsman style. Although many captions have helpful end notes, the notes are not referred to in the text.
These minor failings are far outweighed by the quantity of valuable information, which is especially helpful in dating labels. One particularly useful chapter details changing trends in graphic design. Also, the bibliography will lead readers to books on specific label types (cigar and fruit crate art, for example), and an appendix lists scores of lithographers who have produced American labels.
Most important, however, is that the book is simply gorgeous, with brilliant colors and detailed drawings. That alone will inspire many readers to further explore this engaging and edifying subject.
Joe Gustaitis is a writer specializing in popular history and a frequent contributor to American History.