Package Design, a leading or trailing indicator, 1930-1940

This is the fourth in our series of short pieces on highlights in the package design history of the 20th century, decade by decade.

The 1930s can’t be written about without the immediate acknowledgment that the biggest economic and social event of the time was the great depression, with average incomes down 40%, from $2,300 to $1,500, between 1929 and 1932. It had an obvious impact on all cultural and commercial institutions of the time, and its influence on design is unquestioned.

WPA Artwork SmallOne of the most direct influences on design was the employment of artists and designers by the WPA. It was estimated that over 5,000 artists were employed by the WPA Federal Artists Project making between $23 and $35 a week. And some of this work is shown above from a Broward County Florida Museum’s online exhibit on New Deal jobs creation programs. This is wonderful stuff and continues to have obvious influences on contemporary designers like Michael Schwab.

In spite of the economic hardships, or perhaps because of them, the decade was also a surprisingly vibrant time for the arts, architecture and design. Some notable events in architecture included the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930 and Empire State building in 1931, while in 1935 Wright began to design Falling Water and it is completed in 1937. The opening of The Museum of Modern Art in New York occurred in 1939. In interiors, 1933 marks the year Herman Miller exhibited its first Gilbert Rohde collection at the Chicago World’s Fair, Century of Progress Exposition, and in 1938 Hans Knoll arrives in US, and starts a furniture company in a single room on 72nd Street in NYC.

There were notable commercial achievements as well. In 1930 RCA Victor introduced the first LP vinyl record, in 1938 the first TV broadcasting started and the first televised baseball game was aired between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939, and 1939 also marked the release of Gone with The Wind and Wizard of Oz.

Three events in the decade conspired to produce some interesting packaging, the repeal of prohibition, the growth of the electric washing machine, and the hiring of Alex Steinweiss by Columbia records.  

1930s BeerCans SmallThe repeal of Prohibition in 1933 as one of the most significant acts early in Roosevelt’s first term and canning of beer was soon started for the first time. The official birthday of the beer can is January 24, 1935. That’s the day cans of Krueger’s Finest Beer and Krueger’s Cream Ale first went on sale in Richmond, VA. This can is shown with a number of other fascinating cans from the period. These images are from It is interesting to see the much more modern approach to graphics taken by the brewers on this package structure, very different than the graphics on most beer bottle labels of the time. It is almost as if they felt that a revolutionary structure required revolutionary graphics.

Soap 1930s BoxesSales of electric washing machines reached nearly 1 million units by the late 20s and the first public laundromat opened in Ft Worth in 1934. Laundry detergent packaging was beginning to reflect the simple basic hard-hitting look that would dominate the detergent category for the next 75 years. You can make the case that it has been only in the last several years that consumer products companies have begun to change this approach. The packaging shown here includes the original 1933 Dreft box, the first synthetic laundry detergent.

In 1939, Columbia Records hired Alex Steinweiss, an AIGA medalist, as its first art director. The announcement of a 2007 retrospective of his work at the Robert Berman Gallery said this about his contribution,

Steinweiss 1939 R&H LP“In 1939, a 23 year old graphic designer revolutionized the music industry.  No longer would records come in plain brown wrappers.  As Art Director at Columbia Records, Steinweiss created the ‘album package.’ His idea was to create a visual to complement the musical.  It was an instant success, and spawned an entire new field of illustration and design:  Album Cover Art.  Steinweiss was the king of the genre; his covers are still regarded as icons.In his four decade career, Steinweiss created album covers for musical luminaries such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinisky and Benny Goodman.” The 1939 Rogers & Hart album cover, shown here, was one of his first.

We will soon be hearing more about his work. Steven Heller and Kevin Reagan have a Taschen book on his work that I think will be released in June. His subsequent work during the 1940s reflects a completely modern approach to design that we will review in the package design of the next decade.


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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4 Responses to Package Design, a leading or trailing indicator, 1930-1940

  1. Pingback: Pay the Artists, they are “paintbrush ready” « The Package Unseen

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  4. Pingback: 1930′s Design | Negotiated Study. . . . . . . . . Motion Graphics

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