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Food for Thought: Vintage Dog Food Labels
Selling dog food with panache
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Dog Food for Thought: Pet Food Label Art, Wit & Wisdom (Insight Editions) showcases the colorful, bold packaging from the golden age of advertising— think Mad Men meets Lassie. This book by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain is a reminder that dogs are firmly embedded in pop culture imagery. We asked Dotz to expand on the topic.

The period from the early 1950s through the late ’70s was not only the apex of independently owned pet food companies and supermarkets; it was also a time when the creative flourish of modern aesthetics was incorporated into label design. And so, many of the pet food labels showcased in our book are among the best and boldest that commercial advertising of the time had to offer.

I love the bold logotypes, interesting fonts and old-school names. It was a time you might call your dog Rover or King, Lucky or Bingo. The names and illustrations have some wit and humor, too. Most importantly, I think they capture visually all the things we love about “man’s best friend.”

Things changed in the ’80s. As large corporations consolidated the pet food industry [Ed. note: and regulatory oversight increased], labels became more serious and downright boring. Basically, the fun illustrations were replaced by generic photographs of dogs. Many labels I found didn’t even bother to have a picture of a dog at all. Just a brand name. Our book has the originals in their “before-there-were-any-focusgroups” glory and naiveté.


Bark’s conversation with Warren Dotz continues …

What visual styling and cultural and historical influences characterize these dog food labels?

The first goal of any label is to catch the customer’s eye and a dog label is no different. The genesis of pet food labels really goes back to the orchards and farmlands of California. Fruits and vegetables were originally shipped in wooden crates and colorful lithographic labels were affixed to the ends of each crate to identify its contents and place of origin. As the produce market grew larger each season, immense competition at the local level took place. Since fruits and vegetables look alike from crate to crate—and the same could be said about dog food from can to can—illustrated labels were used to differentiate one brand from the next. The label art proved so successful that they appeared on canned legumes and sardines and even boxes of cigars. 

In the 1950's however, almost overnight, the development of pre-printed cardboard boxes caused wooden crates with paper labels to be a thing of the past. Unused stocks of produce labels that remained undiscovered for years in old print shops and barns across the country eventually were collected by historians, collectors, and art lovers but the emphasis was on produce, not pets. The illustrators in print shops however had turned their eye to pet food and it was a growth industry. Our book is the first about dog food art.

Your book focuses on dog food labels of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Did things change?

In the 1950’s, although some pet food brands continued the traditional fruit crate label style—often depicting real-life dogs—other illustrators began to be influenced by modern cartoons, comic books, Walt Disney and television. In particular, Saturday morning, cartoon television and the cereal box brands (and commercials) that sponsored them. Still present were the bold logo types but now there were illustrations of more modern-style, comic-strip dogs, mutts and puppies. These Kid-Vid and Mad Men era styled labels were some of our favorites and the book is filled with many of these.

What was the business and economic landscape like to produce so many different dog food products—what does that abundance say about America at that time?

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