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Prints and Photographs Division



Graphic Journalism and Illustration
Photojournalism Collections
Documentary Surveys
Advertising and Propaganda
Graphic Ephemera
arrow graphicProduct Labels

Sheet Music Covers
Pictures: Business and Art
Design Collections
Organizations' Records
Personal Papers



Product Labels
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Juliet, fine cut, chewing tobacco. Copyright 1873. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

The division's rich holdings of product labels (700 items, 1840s-80s), especially tobacco and patent medicine labels, which were acquired through copyright deposit, reflect nineteenth-century commercial development. They invite analysis of the connections among the marketing of particular products, the intended customers for the products, and the nature of the imagery used in the products' packaging.

It has been argued that manufacturers provided lavish, often ingenious, pictorial labeling for luxury goods such as tobacco and wine, aiming to appeal to the potential purchaser's yearning for elegance and for self-indulgence. By the 1870s, tobacco art had developed along two lines:

  • labels reflecting events of the day, such as the expansion of the frontier and women's gradual emancipation
  • a more sensual school, emphasizing the female figure in a variety of settings6

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Elixir feminae partens or, Mothers remedy for morning sickness. Published between 1850 and 1900. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

The labels also depict celebrities of the day, including popular actresses and singers. Although researchers have, to a certain extent, mined the product labels for illustration and for research on representation of racial and ethnic groups, they remain fertile territory for scholarly exploration, particularly with respect to the connections among gender representation, commerce, and consumption.

Searching the Collection

Most images for which copy negatives or transparencies exist can be searched in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. The labels do not have their own listing in the online catalog, but can be retrieved by searching for the format labels in combination with the product being advertised, such as patent medicines, tobacco, etc., as well as the subject depicted. Digitized images generally accompany the records.

To look for the images for which no online record exists, onsite researchers can consult the Divisional Card Catalog shelflist by the appropriate LOT number:

  • LOT 10632-patent medicine labels (the shelflist outlines the sub-categories into which the labels have been organized
  • LOT 10618-tobacco labels (the shelflist outlines the sub-categories into which the labels have been organized)
  • LOTs 10661-10771-organized by the product being advertised, from beer, chewing gum, and cosmetics, to sewing machines and yeast

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Beauty—Manufactured by R. Wilson & Co., Cincinnati, O. Strobridge & Co. Copyright 1869. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

The sub-categories into which the labels have been sorted seldom mention women explicitly. A certain amount of intuition is needed to select the products and categories in which women are likely to be depicted. Sub-categories such as “Allegories,” “Bicycles and bicycling,” and “Daily life and activities,” for instance, yield rich imagery of women.

Go to the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC)

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