The first decade of the 20th century was an amazing time, in some ways like our own first decade of the 21st century, filled with fascinating contradictions appearing in many areas. The gilded age, brought on in part by the wealth created by industrialization of the 19th century, was slipping away. Queen Victoria died in January 1901, just months before a 42 year old Teddy Roosevelt, still the youngest person to become President, began his progressive, “trust busting” administration.
In architecture, the last of the Newport summer cottages, huge mansions really, were being completed as Frank Lloyd Wright was beginning one of his most productive periods in Chicago.
In music and theater, Caruso made one his first recordings in 1902, just as Jelly Roll Morton, then 17, was beginning his career in New Orleans. Louis Armstrong was born in 1901, the same year that Isadora Duncan moved to Paris to begin dancing. Vaudeville was probably the most popular form of entertainment, but a nickelodeon was beginning to show up in every town, and Irving Berlin did some of his earliest work in 1909.
In decoration and home furnishings the same forces of contradiction existed. The arts and crafts movement, represented by the solid geometric forms of Stickley furniture was becoming popular, with House Beautiful magazine supporting the movement proclaiming its “Simplicity, Economy, and Appropriateness in the Home”. At the same time the organic influences of art nouveau were beginning to blossom, represented by the wonderful work of Tiffany. Both of these movements were responding, in their own unique way, to the mechanization brought on by the industrial revolution.
In industry, Marconi first transmitted a Morse code signal across the Atlantic. The Wright brothers had their first powered flight, and the Ford Model T began to revolutionize travel.
In business, the later part of the decade was influenced by two severe shocks. The west coast was deeply influenced by the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, while the New York Stock Exchange had a massive panic, losing 40% of its value in 1907.
In popular culture, the Gibson Girl and Gibson Man were the Barbie and Ken of the early 1900s, appearing on everything from wallpaper to bath towels. While magazines like Colliers and Ladies Home Journal were beginning to bring mass communication and mass advertising to the home.
All of this was taking place as the design industry was dealing with the invention of the first offset press by Washington Rubel in 1903. Typography was being deeply influenced by the work of Morris Fuller Benton, of the newly created American Type Founders Company, who designed fonts including Alternate Gothic, Century Schoolbook, Franklin Gothic, News Gothic, Souvenir, and Stymie.
The package design industry was also at a crossroads. At the end of the 19th century, the combination of modern paper, glass and metal manufacturing and production methods, combined with new printing techniques had begun to allow mass production of packaging.
Package design however, while certainly more technically advanced, did not seem to reflect these dramatic social changes. The four packages shown above, brands that would continue to be well known, all represent a look that was surprisingly consistent for the period. The obvious influences of the gilded age with ornate detail, and complex layouts and busily framed areas were very evident. Typography was still heavily influenced by the 19th century traditions of hand set wood and lead type. Yet there were unmistakable influences of art nouveau in the organically inspired initial capital letterforms, floral outlines, and patterned borders.
Package design did not seem to be taking an influential creative direction of its own. What seems evident is that the designers of the time were using complexity to create uniqueness. Unfortunately this complexity led to a look that was, as a result, ordinary for its time. The dramatic social changes of the time were not yet influencing package design, which in general reflects the complexities and ornateness of a gilded age Newport “cottage”, rather then the vibrance of a new century. We see none of the contemporary influences of Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture, or even the more utilitarian aspects of mass manufacturing represented by the Model T Ford, and certainly no attempt, as we will see in the next decade, to create unique brands based on ownable, recognizable and promotable trademarks and character elements.
Purvis, Alston W., and Le Coultre, Martijn F. 2003. Graphic Design 20th Century. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
Haskell, Barbara. 1999. The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-1950. Organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York: W. W. Norton & Company