Labels might seem like fairly straightforward communication tools. They provide information about a product and use persuasive techniques to convince the viewer to buy it. However, labels can also communicate a great deal about the circumstances in which they were created. Reading labels as historical objects and applying historical thinking strategies can help students discover what these sometimes-overlooked objects can communicate with us in the present day.
For example, students might look at this label for Southerner Rights Segars from 1859 and wonder about the name itself. What do cigars have to do with rights? And why appeal specifically to cigar smokers in Georgia and Alabama? Encourage students to consider the juxtaposition of the text and imagery. What does this image of a plantation suggest about the product, cigars? Allow time for students to put the item aside for a few minutes and brainstorm adjectives they associate with plantations. After close observation of the image, students might list a few adjectives describing the image, including the figures in the foreground and the plantation itself, and compare it to their expectations of how a plantation might be described. What surprises them about the image?
Students might benefit from putting the item in historical context by identifying or researching what was happening in the country at the time of creation (1859) and particularly in southern states, such as Georgia and Alabama. How might the label reflect tensions on the eve of the U.S. Civil War? Students might conduct research to learn what typical tobacco plantation conditions were actually like at that time and then consider why the label presents a distorted view of the circumstances under which the tobacco, raw material for the cigars, was produced.
To gain additional perspective, students might examine advertisements for a similar product from a different time. For example, this label from 1874 for Grant’s Tobacco is similar in that it visually evokes a scene not directly related to the product. Again, begin by allowing students time to observe the image, reflect on what they are seeing, and develop questions. Then, deepen students’ thinking by prompting them to think about:
- Who made it?
- For what purpose?
- For what audience?
- What was happening in 1874 that might affect understanding the label as a historical object?
For example, students might discover that Grant was president of the U.S. in 1874, but the label portrays him in his role as a Civil War general. Students might brainstorm why the manufacturer made that choice.
Finally, students might reflect on what they can learn about the past by examining, analyzing, and critically comparing even such everyday historical objects as product labels. They might consider that each label evokes an idealized image. Neither label describes the product itself; neither label reflects the conditions under which the tobacco was produced. In looking at what is – and what is not – included on the labels for this common product, students might gain a deeper understanding of societal norms in the decades preceding and following the American Civil War.
What surprised your students about these labels?