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One of the colorful labels from Terry and Ralph Kovel's 'The Label Made Me Buy It'

They love these labels: an interactive image gallery
'The label made me buy it'

Color, style, history: An appreciation of the label

Web posted on: Friday, January 15, 1999 6:03:53 PM

By CNN Interactive Writer
Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Terry Kovel is convinced that she has no control over her desire to collect all things antique.

"I suspect there's something about my personality that is addictive," she says. "I suspect sometimes you are born without a collecting gene. My son doesn't collect anything and it appalls me."

Kovel and her husband, Ralph, have made a living collecting antiques. They have written 75 books, including the highly-regarded annual printing of "Kovels' Antiques and Collectibles Price List". They also write a column for the magazine House Beautiful and 150 newspapers.

And they never really escape their passion: Their Cleveland-area house is a sort of shrine to antiques, complete with a fully-stocked 1890 General Store in the basement, something Terry Kovel says is rather ordinary among collectors.

"We found to our surprise that we are not alone," she says. "I have seen at least 100 of them, including one person who lives within walking distance of our house."

In other words, a lot of people have the "collecting gene," and most will be interested in the Kovel's latest effort on bookshelves. "The Label Made Me Buy It" (Crown Publishers, Inc.) is a monumental display of the Kovel's passion of passions: collecting labels from old cans, jars, bottles, etc.

History of the label

The book offers a colorful history of the label, which first appeared, according to historians, in one of two places: ancient Egypt, where wine merchants used clay seals to label the spirits; or 3000 B.C. China, where potters often branded their pots.

Later, in the early 1800s, when canning grew in popularity as a way to store and sell food, labels became a necessity. But they were much different than the labels lining the grocery stores today.

"The early labels in 1840s were used in a totally different type of store," Kovel says. "The (product) was on a shelf and you pointed to it and they brought it down, so these labels catered to that. They concentrated on colors more, and brands were more important -- it was a name that caught your eye."

Readers of "The Label Made Me Buy It" are treated to the evolution of the label into the 20th century, gaining perspective on the current state of company insignia found on plastic jars of Peter Pan and Jif, classic Coke bottles and Gen-X Pepsi cans.

Each label in the book -- over 300 of them, from milk bottles to tobacco bags, canned foods to food crates -- comes from the Kovel's collection, narrowed down from 10,000 they have kept from years of searching old food stores and companies, out-of-business print shops, garage sales, antique markets and dealers. And each entry is accompanied by a brief passage about the company the label once served.

"When we started, no one else was doing this," says Kovel. "No one was collecting old cans. We begged everybody at the bottle shows to give us bottles with labels on them and to not take labels off."

'Miniature advertising billboards'

But why keep old labels? Aside from the uncontrollable effects of the "collecting gene," which also includes the fun of knowing the old label you discovered last week is actually rare enough to be worth something, why keep the tags that once adorned cans of food?

Kovel says each one is a tiny window into history, and a clue to what makes us reach into our wallets.

"Labels are miniature advertising billboards and they actually tell you how you could sell things in those days," she says.

Some sales techniques vary with each decade; others never change.

"In the 1890s white protestants were the main customers, and the labels made fun of everything else -- blacks, Jews, American Indians," she says.

Label colors changed with the times, too.

"Pastels were popular in the 1920s, and now red, white and blue things are coming through. But the designs on the labels are pretty constant -- buildings, attractive women. Certain things never miss -- cars, trains, boats, planes. Patriotism is always big, flags and government."

'Fun of the search'

Some labels, like the ones featuring scantily clad women, weren't meant to attract the customer's attention, Kovel says. After all, what turn-of-the-century housewife wanted to bring home a can of vegetables featuring a beautiful blonde?

Instead, the labels catered to wholesalers -- usually men -- who picked the products that they would sell to retail outlets.

Kovel's favorite label once graced a can of Potter and Wrightington's tomato soup. It shows a maid bringing a tureen of steaming soup to a husband and wife sitting at the dinner table. Intricate details show elegant silverware, cloth napkins wrapped by rings, the Victorian hairstyle of the woman.

"It's a whole piece of life on this label saying, This was for the very well-to-do," says Kovel.

And now the label has a different purpose. It's the treasure of collectors like the Kovels.

"The best part about collecting is when people who collect with a passion find out that things they bought are eventually worth money," she says. "It's the fun of the search."

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