Package Design, a leading or trailing indicator, 1910-1920

The second decade of the 20th century was a time of transition, unrest and reform in all forms of life in America. The decade began with the economy recovering from the San Francisco earthquake and the stock market panic of 1907, obviously a major influence was World War I, and the decade ended with national labor unrest in 1919.

The decade also featured a number of interesting developments in Washington. In 1913 the 16th Constitutional amendment passed creating income taxes and the Federal Reserve System was begun. The decade ended in 1919, with the passage of the 18th amendment outlawing alcohol and the 19th amendment giving women the vote.   

In architecture, the vertical power of the Woolworth building completed by Cass Gilbert in 1913 was contrasted by the horizontal of Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Taliesin in Wisconsin. While New York experienced the completion of some monumental public buildings like Grand Central Station and The Main Public Library, Sears was beginning to sell modest homes by catalogue for under $1,000. In Europe, Walter Gropius and others founded the Bauhaus, in 1919.

In the theater the decade contrasted Charlie Chaplin debuting as the little tramp in 1914, and the early work of Eugene O’Neill.  

Science featured the 1916 release of Einstein’s general theory of relativity,

In commerce, the Titanic sank in 1912, the Whitman’s Sampler packaging became the first to use cellophane, and the first moving assembly line was developed for the production of the Ford Model T. Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum and the Morton’s Salt girl were both initiated in 1914. While in 1917 US Rubber developed the first Keds sneaker, and inventor Clarence Birdseye developed a rapid freezing method for preserving food.

In popular culture, the Erector Set, and Tinker Toys were introduced, while Lincoln Logs were created by John Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, inspired by a trip to Tokyo where The Imperial Hotel, designed by his father, was being built using a new technique of interlocking beams.

In fine arts, three fundamental concepts concerning art in America were seriously reconsidered between 1910 and 1920.  1. What ‘art’ is, 2. Who makes decisions about standards, and 3. How art is shared with the viewing public. This can be seen by the wide diversity of artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, and Mary Cassatt, or the vast variety of artistic styles being developed, from realism, primitivism, symbolism, fauvism, dadaism, futurism, and cubism.

Perhaps the most important single event early in the decade was the 1913 Armory Show in New York. This was an exhibition of over 300 European and American artists, with radical modern works including Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase and Matisse’s Luxury. Some have called it one of the most influential events in the history of American art, and the power of this show would shape all visual arts for many years.  

package-collage1910-19201Package design was also at a significant crossroads. Although the overt modernist influences of the Armory Show would not show up on the store shelves in this decade, there were clear changes from the heavily decorative packaging of the previous decade. The image in this post shows three themes beginning to play a significant role, the first is greater typographic freedom, the second is the incorporation of a variety of different imagery, and the last is a general trend towards simplification.

Lets start with typography. The first decade of the 20th century was dominated by remnants of the gilded age, with complex textural fonts, art nouveau inspire typographic flourishes, and limited color. Typographically the designers were heavily influenced by complex rendered letterforms with rich organic complexity throughout the package.

In the second decade of the 20th century things got a bit more flexible and in some ways cleaner and more straightforward. Designers started to experiment more freely with combining serif and sans serif letterforms. In fact the Campbell’s, Whitman’s, Coca Cola, and Kellogg’s packages all have a brand identity rendered in a script font (presumably because this was thought to be more unique) combined with secondary product descriptors in sans serif, or at least more simplified typographic approaches. This combination of script identities with simpler secondary copy seems to be a new trend and specific to this decade.

The Half and Half package is a perfect example of the design conflicts taking place at this time, a combination of the very complex, gilded age, Buckingham identity in the lower right, with the very simplified, sans serif, Lucky Strike brand mark. Two brand identity elements from very different visual heritages. As far as my research can tell, this was the first time such an obvious juxtaposition of styles was used by a designer.

Now secondly the use of imagery was beginning to loosen up significantly. You will notice that this collage contains an actual photograph on the Ty Cobb chocolates, a rendered gold medallion on Campbell’s, a stitched sampler pattern on Whitman’s, a graphic arrow on Wrigley’s, product illustration on Tinkertoy, and a simple nouveaux inspired floral element on Kellogg’s. In each case this was an attempt to support the purely typographic with a graphic element that supported or visually described the product, as well as acted as a unique and memorable part of the brand identity.

In this decade we are beginning to see the evolution of distinct product identities. We also are beginning to see elements of the design that will remain key communication vehicles for decades to come. The split red & white Campbell’s soup can, the sampler artwork set on a cream background, the Coca Cola script letterform, the Wrigley’s arrow device, the Lucky Strike target.

The last trend is simplification. You would rarely see anything we might now call “air” in the designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Backgrounds were typically filled with texture, type was multi-layered and complex, and package layouts busy and geometric. In this new decade we would occasionally see designers use flat areas of color, straight lines, or typography that was not filled with rules, outlines and drop shadows.

Perhaps without even knowing the ramifications of their decisions, and certainly without yet fully embracing the modernism that was soon to come, or that was increasingly evident in many other areas of the graphic arts, package designers of this decade were beginning to lay the fundamental groundwork and precedent for the establishment of a brand identity using package design as the vehicle.

We started by describing this decade as a time of transition, unrest and reform. Its fair to say that there was also a significant transition in the basic visual tools of package designers as they began to recognize the importance of unique typography, an ownable representation of the product, and the use of a consistent visual architecture.  


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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