Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.


Jim Miller




Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Recounting of My Adventures to Recreate Period Packaging and Labels

The author evolving with fellow historians.
Note the labeled goods.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Photo Ed Sims
     During the earliest days of my volunteering as a docent, I began to question the credibility of any attempts to recreate the past. Seriously ! To me it was overwhelming to imagine what has been lost to the passage of time. Yet in my yearning to gain insight into the past I began to see the nobility in some kind of effort to keep it alive. I think Living History comes with an enormous responsibility to be honest about past people and past things but I have to admit,  in the beginning I was as pitiful as the next guy in my poor efforts. This hobby is as much about evolution as anything else. Evolve or Die, that's my mantra, and I try to live by it. This post is about my work recreating labels for goods from the mid-19 century and a few tricks I learned along that path.

    From the begining I wanted to contribute something postive towards the improvement of our Living History program at Columbia State Historic Park. I found an allly in fellow docent David Peebles, as we both saw the need for more credibility in how we represented Gold Rush merchants and their goods. David and I made that noble effort to break free of the silly romantic hooey that fueled the previous attempts by introducing the O. P. Davis Store at Columbia's Tent Town event  in June of 1994. Our resources were scant and our knowledge was minimal but we had labeled goods and stenciled crates that at least evoked some "feeling" from the past. Granted, we were a little more creative in our re-creations than we should have been but everyone has to start somewhere, right?

A few of my labels over the years
some better than others
Photo Lindy Miller 2005
     From that point forward, I've tried to focus on the most authentic packaging and label representations within my capabilities and needs. Trained as a professional illustrator, I'm lucky to have the advantage of an artist's eye. This came in handy when studying period graghics as many surviving original paper labels are fragmented and need careful reconstruction before replication is possible. In this post, I'm not going to explain the history or dating of labels but rather show a process of replication that works for me and talk about a few resources that I've found helpful.

Original bottles with contents
note the foil labels
Courtesy Steamboat Arabia Museum
     Period appropriate labels can be found in books and some of my favorites are "Package & Print" by Alec Davis, 1967, "Ketchup, Pickles, Sauces, 19th Century Food in Glass" by Betty Zumwalt, 1980 and "The Art of the Label" by Robert Opie, 1987. The Steamboat Arabia museum in Kansas City, Missouri is a mecca for historians for it's collections of preserved cargo from an 1856 wreck. The only labels that survived on the Arabia were the foil ones on some bottled goods but they also have many preserved crates on display for study. Another notable resource is the museum of the Steamboat Bertrand, an 1865 wreck, that is located in the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Surprisingly, many of the paper labeled goods survived intact from the Bertrand and numerous examples are in their collection  and some are featured in " The Bertrand Bottles" by Ronald R. Switzer, 1974.

    This post is about creating facsimile labels, so I'm not going to discuss period printing or what is the "correct" paper. I'll leave that to people that want to take this to the next level. So how exactly do I recreate the look of a period label ?  First, it starts with what you are working from. If the label is intact and flat, a simple photocopy might suffice but if you have to recreate what's missing, I've found it's best to start with an enlarged version that you can scale down later. I find that cut-and-paste works for me, but Photoshop is probably a better choice for the computer-savvy. On occasion, I hit-up people like my friends Derek or Floyd to clean-up a graphic or rearrange some lettering for me.  For artwork, I use Micron pens from Pigma for detail work and Prismacolor pencils when color is needed. Sometimes a plain ole Sharpie is just the ticket. A word of advice is to keep your creativity in check when restoring a label. Try to be faithful to the original design as much as possible while working to restore what's missing. Sometimes merely flipping the remaining design can do the trick or you might refer to other labels to guide your choices.
Labels and their artwork reading clockwise
Yeast Powder from the Bertrand
Pepper Sauce from author's collection
Byass Porter from online auction
Photos Lindy Miller 2011

Wells, Miller and Provost Label embossing steps
left to right
final embossing plates, rubber stamps, latex mould
My replica foil labels
Pickles and Brandied Peaches Yum!
Bottles by Dog River  Glassworks
    Some of the most challenging labels to recreate are those of embossed metal foil, usually lead or brass. Many examples have been excavated in Gold Rush sites, so this type was particularly interesting to me. I realized that I needed some kind of embossing plate that would leave its impression on soft metal foil. I started with a black and white graphic of the design, drawn to scale. I copied that onto a transparency to produce a reverse version. I then had my local print shop make a rubber stamp of the reverse image so that the rubber stamp was a positive rather than a normal stamp negative. Are you with me so far?  From that rubber stamp, I made a latex mold. From that mold, I cast a hard resin version of the rubber stamp. So what I ended up with was a hard rubbing plate with a positive design. Whew !! Dental tin foil from Pearson Lab Supply is a good substitute for the lead foil that was originally used for some of these labels. The process starts by placing a piece of foil over the plate and then using an art gum eraser, I gently press down until the design appears on the foil. To flatten the background and enhance the design, I found that gently pressing the embossed label over a piece of plate glass, with my fingertips, worked great. The label is then trimmed and glued on the appropriate bottle.

      For those that are curious, I no longer sell my labels but rather encourage others to make their own. In that regard, I hope this post has been at least a little helpful and maybe even evolutionary.

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