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Food for Thought: Vintage Dog Food Labels

Most meat-based canned dog food had a significant share of the market until a shortage of tin during World War II meant no more canned foods for dogs at that time. Dry kibble filled the breech. Canned dog food returned after the war along with the GI bill. That allowed unprecedented numbers of Americans to buy homes, furthering the economic boom. The move to the suburbs also replaced the corner grocery store with supermarkets teaming with processed foods. This massive increase in consumer demand resulted in vast quantities of agricultural scraps from slaughterhouses, grain mills, and processing plants. Meat and poultry companies saw the opportunity to use their animal by-products in a marketable way. Rather than waste these scraps on fertilizer, many new commercial pet food companies were formed with this unlimited countrywide opportunity. By the 1970s, there were more than 1,500 pet foods on the market with varieties of liver, beef, and chicken flavors.

During that same time, a major pet food company discovered a method for taking a hot liquid “soup” of meat, fat, and grain scraps and injecting them through another heat process that "popped" the fluid into light, kibbled dry food of any shape—just like kids cereal. These new types of kibble “chow” were sold in colorful boxes and bags and they too became part of our collection of advertising art. 

Are there naming conventions or marketing terms that were popularized during the period?

Most food was either considered “moist canned” or “dry kibbled.” Gaines-Burgers, a brand of dog food introduced a hybrid category in 1961. The product consisted of individually wrapped patties of moisturized dog food which resembled a hamburger. Unlike hamburgers, the Gaines-Burgers could be stored at room temperature for long periods of time and not be canned. Interestingly, many of the product labels in the books point out that the cats would love the dog food too. That is not going to fly these days with the feline crowd.

Have any interesting anecdotes regarding tracking down these labels or good stories about these old dog food companies?

Well, I like to collect beautiful paper label art whether it be Indian matchboxes, packs of Chinese firecrackers or Mad Men era food products. I’ve written books about them all, in fact. 

But by far—of all my collections—this collection of pet food label art was the most difficult to assemble. So my idea for this book sat dormant for a decade. Who would have thought to save them? Now and then a fruit crate label dealer would come upon a pet food label for me. Then one day I discovered and won a huge estate auction of labels, saved not by a collector, but a pet food executive from the Midwest. He actually wrote notes on the back of some labels regarding their product’s aroma and appearance. I guess one person’s corporate espionage became my treasure and the starting point and subsequently the backbone of the book. Even with all those labels I still needed to find more of the very best on Ebay and through ephemera dealers. When someone found a great vintage can of dog food in the back of an old kitchen cabinet or run-down garage, I was there—figuratively knocking on their door so-to-speak—to not only save the can’s label from the scrap heap but also to present it in its true graphic beauty.

Any pitfalls in writing a book about retro imagery in a modern digital world?

Masud, my co-author who is the graphic designer of this book, is a master of freshening the label imagery digitally so they look like the day they first appeared on the supermarket shelf. He is also an award-winning branding specialist so he knows his way around vintage label art and contemporary graphics. Although the images are “retro” we design our books in a modern style. Besides pet lovers, we also expect our books to be embraced by illustrators and graphic designers who find inspiration in the images. One illustrator recently wrote online that he is the artist for a video game and used our book to spark his creativity in producing faux 60s product art.

What about the fun quotations in the book?

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