Labels have the power to change the way we view the content around which they are wrapped, literally and figuratively.
In the canning industry, same cans of salmon (containing the same type of salmon, processed in the same cannery, with the same ingredients, by the same cannery workers), were wrapped with different labels, depending on who the can was sold by, and to whom it was sold. Labels were (and still are) a powerful and important tool to influence consumers.
Canned salmon from Canada’s West Coast was a popular export beginning in the late 1800’s. At that time advertising to customers overseas was not as easy as it is today and there was also a lot of competition — there have been over 200 canneries in B.C.’s history since the late 1800’s — so companies used the labels on cans to stand out from the pack.
Labels on canned salmon first showed simple images of salmon, scenery, or the canneries themselves, plus nutritional information to show the customers what was inside the cans. At the time, not all customers could read and the idea of getting food in a can was also new, so having labels like this helped customers understand where their food was coming from.
Some labels would show the salmon on one side and a beaver, moose, or RCMP officer on the other to make sure the customer could easily see that it came from Canada. Showing that your salmon came from Canada’s West Coast, where quality controls were strict, meant it was possible to charge a higher price. Later, women and children were shown on labels to make the canned salmon more appealing to families. Some can labels even came with recipes on them, to show that a healthy and nutritious meal with canned salmon was simple to make.
In the 1940’s, the Walt Disney company designed a cartoon character called “Sammy Gold Seal Salmon” to market directly to kids. Sammy went on many adventures which were detailed in comic books given out to kids at schools. These are only a few of the types of labels that have been used to sell salmon from Canada’s West Coast.
These are only a few of the types of labels that have been used to sell salmon from Canada’s West Coast. There are many more, and the images and messages on these labels ranged from political propaganda to pictures of pixies, tigers, and women on bicycles. The Label Unwrapped is the Cannery’s current feature exhibit, and it shows a wide range of labels, each a window into history. Today, products from all over the world fill the shelves at grocery stores. Next time you go shopping think about how the labels are actually mini-advertisements. Do you think they affect your choices?
For more history on salmon can labels, be sure to watch the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society’s online Doors Open tour of our archival salmon can label collections, from June 6 to 13, 2020. Look for our posts on social media, or visit the Richmond Doors Open Facebook page for updates.