You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a bottle of booze by its label – or at least that’s what Lehmann Printing and Lithographing Company hoped you would do. The San Francisco firm printed gorgeous labels for wine, beer, and liquor distributors in the 1920s and ’30s, many of which are on display at “Vintage,” a new exhibition at the California Historical Society (CHS).
Produced during both boom times and those of extreme hardship, the labels (and the booze they described) offered fantastical images of California’s bounty while playing to newly discovered theories about marketing. On view from Dec. 10 through April 16, 2017, “Vintage” is an example of “a forgotten high point of American commercial art.”
“In the 1920s and ’30s, marketing and understanding of advertising had changed,” says Erin Garcia, managing curator of exhibitions for CHS. “The wine makers and spirits makers and beer makers were mass producers. They were selling these fantasies of the good life to people who weren’t probably doing that well.”
Lehmann’s “visual vocabulary” for branded and stock labels included parted curtains, heavy vines, and peaceful fields – many of which were unique combinations of popular Art Deco design with romanticized references to the Middle Ages, California’s Mission era, and the Gold Rush. These labels used bold lettering, bolder colors and defied expectations of mass produced art. Wine labels often depicted origin stories of grapes that encouraged consumers to think about fine wines of yore; beer labels would use European imagery to conjure up thoughts of hoppy Bavarian fields.
The labels also used heavily targeted advertising that played on consumer’s self-image. Labels depicting rugged, adventuring men were printed alongside those that featured dapper gentlemen, forcing a consumer to ask themselves: What kind of man do you want to be?
“In spirits labels, you have different kinds of personal identity being expressed. There are whiskey labels about explorers… men with pickaxes,” Garcia noted. “Other ‘high society whiskeys’ showed a man in top hat with fine ladies in gowns. You can really see in labels how Lehmann is exploring this new understanding of consumer behavior.”
To create these identity-probing labels, Lehmann employed hundreds of artists in its Embarcadero and, later, Fourth Street buildings. These anonymous artists hand-drew imagery and lettering in pencil, then in gouache, which were translated into print and run off in huge quantities for clients. One of the biggest lithography companies in the area, and one that could do five-color inking with up to 150,000 labels per order, Lehmann was also a prototype for a modern offset lithography production plant.
“The business model was interesting in that a lot of the business was custom … then they also had a stock label business. A lot had same motifs, but were without lettering. Local letterpress shops could add lettering for clients after,” Garcia says.
Lehmann printed more than just liquor labels; the company created designs for toilet products and food. Unlike those for beverages, Lehmann’s produce labels would feature images of California and the Bay Area, including references to the 1939 World’s Fair.
Vintage will display nearly 200 of Lehmann’s labels, including some for its produce business, alongside pencil drawings from artists. If you love labels but can’t visit the exhibit, Lehmann labels are also published in a two volume collection from Heyday Books.
“Vintage: Wine, Beer, and Spirits Labels from the Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing,” Dec. 10, 2016 – April 16, 2017, at the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., 415-357-1848 or californiahistoricalsociety.org