Food for Thought: Vintage Dog Food Labels

Selling dog food with panache
By Cameron Woo, June 2014

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?

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?

It took three years to find the label art but adding the quotations, proverbs, and witty remarks took just as long. It is one of the most endearing parts of the book that ties everything together. People—especially famous people like comedians or literary figures—love their pets and have a lot to say about them. From Albert Einstein to Rodney Dangerfield, there were literally hundreds of quotations to discover and choose from. I wanted modern contemporary quotes from the famous and not-so-famous. Funny, insightful quotes and just interesting statements. All working seamlessly with the illustration art. All to capture the spirit, varied personalities and beautiful idiosyncrasies of our dogs. 

Do you have a favorite quotation?

My favorite is from George Carlin that I used to describe a label depicting a bunch of breeds all gazing out at you, all in a row: “Life is a series of dogs.”