Thursday, April 3, 2014

Shelf Life (Modern Package Design 1920-1945, by Jerry Jankowski)

Good morning!

How's tricks? The wheels of progress roll on at my workplace-- we're in the midst of renovation, and walls are comin' a tumblin' down! As the shelving is disassembled in the third floor area where I'm stationed at the library, we worker bees have been shifting large ranges of books from old shelving to new shelving. The best part of physically moving these books is not the minor, Towanda-like endorphin rush one gets from slinging heavy hardbacks, but the thrill of finding hidden gold amongst Dewey decimal numbers you haven't necessarily looked over in an exhaustive manner. Example? I hardly ever (never) look at the marketing section (680's), excepting a few Mad Men/David Ogilvy type books...and if I hadn't been shifting books like Doing Business on the World Wide Web (Marni Patterson, copyright 1997), I would have never found THIS book, Shelf Life: Modern Package Design 1920-1945. What a keeper!

Published in 1992, author Jerry Jankowski opens his book on commercial packaging of the 1920's, '30's and '40's with a pre-history of the modern package design's lineage. The earliest example of "packaging" came from a German papermaker named Andreas Bernhart in the 1550's, who wrapped Bernhart reams in a distinctive shield pattern (you can see the label reproduced in this Google books entry on page 28). Various makers made their marks in the ensuing decades, but it was not until almost three centuries later, with the machine age's technological advances, that packaging really made its debut as a force in advertising. In the mid 19th century, chromolithography, "the printing from stones of up to twelve different colors by using dots and solid areas", and other improved printing techniques made mass-produced advertising and packaging possible. Jankowski comes down hard on the Victorian advertising world's penchant for "clutter and fussiness" in design--Grotesque and Egyptian font used indiscriminately with "curlicues, floral patterns and Greek fretting" led to a ongepotchket amalgamations of styles, against which the 1920's art deco school of sleek lines and minimalism could be seen as a direct revolt. Said Modernist designs came into vogue after WWI. While early examples still bore the mark of an Art Nouveau influence (romantic, feminine, floral scenes), by 1920, Cubist-inspired sparsity of design came center stage.

Speaking of Cubist design, that's what made me interested in the cover in the first place, this handsome little gent:

A mid 30's talcum powder bottle, the well heeled monsieur above and on the cover was made for The House of Men, Inc. His stopper-head is made of Vinylite, an early Bakelite plastic, and his broad trunk of glass. Can you imagine proudly setting this on your mister's chest of drawers in the thirties', pleased as punch to have something he can use and something that's cheekily whimsical to boot? I tried to look this up on Etsy and Ebay, but only this sold listing from August of last year popped up. Still! Good to know they're still out there, somewhere!!

The book divides itself into a curated look at these two decades of stylish packaging by type-of-product: 
  • Cosmetics and Grooming Products
  • Food and Beverage
  • Healthy Care Products
  • Cigarettes and Smoking Accessories
  • Automotive Care Products
  • Home and Office Products
  • Games, Puzzles, and Art Supplies
Something about the neat categorization of each of these collectibles appeals to my sense of order. In direct opposition of that, I've chosen my favorite cans and flasks and tins willy nilly from all over the book. Why not take a (disordered) look at what looked best to me? Excuse the glare in some of these photographs-- in some cases, the shiny pages got the better of me in trying to take snaps with my spy camera.

This heavily muscled, Brylcreamed haired George O'Brien type that graces the label of the Red Giant Oil tin on p 82 reminds me of Soviet propaganda posters, iconography that would also be heavily steeped in Art Deco simplicity. Look at him protectively hulking over your engine, promising to keep it not only safe from outside harm, but in good working order. There's an antique mall in Goodletsville, Rare Bird, that has a whole front counter of these deadstock type cans and packages, I want to go next time and see if any of these are represented on their shelves!

Who's been reading my dream journal?! I would LOVE to play "an elusive, fascinating game" with a pair of charismatic robots! The caption clues us in that the robots on the cover have less to do with the futuristic styling of the game (which is just a peg board with pegs to place, Chinese Checker style, in a strategic pattern that would outwit your human or robot counterpart) than the faddish love of sci-fi stylings. This box should have a caveat of "Robots not included" or "Bring your own robot opponent" (p 111).

The last time I got a package of nails for a picture hanging project, they DARN SURE didn't pack as much graphic punch in their plastic shell casings as this little Altoids-box like nail box from Dart. (p. 102). Have you thought about how Altoids tins (and maybe some other kinds of novelty mints) are the only packages that come in this kind of "you could use it for anything" packaging? I mean, technically, you can reuse your box of Tide powder detergent, but it's cardboard, and it's not much worth keeping...if you had five or six of these, you could use them for anything from pill box to an ID case to...the little tinker-junkman in my heart's heart is thinking up all kinds of uses for this box.

Probably my absolute favorite piece of marketing, excepting Mr. Talcum Powder, is this crazy, CRAZY can for "a French cereal product" called Diase. Notice that the bulky character in chiaroscuro there is guzzling from what looks like a gas pump. The French on the can reads "The best gasoline for the human motor". TOP THAT, AD EXECS OF TODAY. I am fascinated (p. 55).

I specifically left out examples of this can on the two page spread that described what was in the can, because it seemed like an unlikely candidate to me! These beautiful little tins, which look exactly like old compacts to me, are actually containers for.....((drum roll)).....typewriter ribbons! Would you believe? (p. 99) Seriously, these are way better than some of the face powder tins earlier in the book.

Between my fondness for the two little birds that chatter daily on the ledge just outside my workroom's large, Church-and-Seventh facing windows, and my life-changing discovery of the twitter feed @probirdrights (possibly the purest comedy gold I have ever read, with truly life affirming tweets like "I'm my own in charge" and "I think a good movie cinema would be me"), I had to include this pretty little bird on a tobacco tin. You tell 'em, bird! Give 'em heck! (p. 73).

I love the gold, mint green, black and white color scheme of this bath powder tin. I have two of my own sitting in the powder room at my house-- one Lanvin dusting powder package from a yard sale that looks like this, and one baby powder tin my friend Xingxia brought back from a trip to a relative's house in China sometime during high school ("This looked old, so I got it for you--my grandma made me buy her a new one," she laconically explained upon bringing it's from the fifties' or sixties' and one of my best treasures!!). I would love to add this one to my collection...c'est si chic! (p. 21)

Last but not least, these tall talc powder bottles from the twenties (p. 22). Again, the black background with a colorful foreground is so elegant-- unlike my nondescript Cetaphil cleanser or the gummy toothpaste tube that I always try and hide in the closet before guests come over, I would have no problem displaying these bottles in a place of pride in the ladies' room.

So! I'm about to release this book back into the wild-- if any of you in Nashville are interested, it's here in your public library! :) Have you seen any great commercial packaging that really caught your eye in antique or junking adventures lately? Which of these packages would you most like to come across at the Goodwill for 99 cents? Read any good books about vintage or antique items lately? Let's talk!

That's all for today, but I will see you back here tomorrow with bells on for Photo Friday. Have a great Thursday! Til then.


  1. Lisa, I found the freakiest thing EVER a couple weeks ago...I simply have to send you a short iPhone video to your email so you can enjoy this with me. Don't ignore the clip thinking it is some sort of sktchy spam, please!
    I'll put it this way, the cashier thought I was insane..and I gloated all day.

    1. I love that I read this way after I opened the video-- I trust you implicitly, Mrs. Leapheart! Hope you're feeling better!!

  2. What an awesome book! They don't design like that anymore, that's for sure.

    1. I want that talcum man bottle so bad. SO. BAD.

  3. I'm looking for more information on that bottle, in my case it is a cologne bottle. The same bottle also contained after shave and shaving lotions... among other things I guess. Mine is in a dark brown suit. Some are a kind of red.

    1. IN my case, it still has the cologne in it.



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