Communication Through Packaging: Product Labels 

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.

Southerner rights segars. Expressly manufactured for Georgia & Alabama by Salomon Brothers fabrica de tabacos de superior calidad de la vuelta-abajo.

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.

Grant’s tobacco

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?


Where Do You Go If You’ve Reached a Historical “Dead End”?

Where can you look if you think you’ve run out of information about a person or place? How can we encourage students to be persistent researching in the face of a “dead end”? And how do we equip students with the knowledge of databases and archives, so that when they run into a historical dead end, they know where to keep looking?

The Evolution of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

The Library of Congress houses the largest archival collection of Walt Whitman materials in the world, all of which have are now available online. Seeing portions of Whitman’s poems in various stages of composition reveals both his very active creative mind and his innovative ways of seeing the world and crafting poetic expressions.

Expanding Student Understanding of Slavery in America by Exploring an Arabic Muslim Slave Narrative

In the January-February 2019 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article discusses the Life of Omar ibn Said, the only known extant narrative written in Arabic by an enslaved person in the United States. Analyzing this unique manuscript provides students with an opportunity to expand their understanding of some of the people who were brought to the United States from Africa to be enslaved. How educated were they? What did they believe?

Sergeants Robert A. Pinn and William H. Thomas: African American Entrants in William O. Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship Contests, 1865-1867

In 1866, William O. Bourne organized a unique left-handed penmanship contest for Union veterans who had lost the use of their right hand. Veterans were encouraged to submit a letter they had written using their left hand and a total prize money of $1000.00 was offered. The Library of Congress holds the many of the entrants’ letters and other information on Bourne and the contest.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” Marches Across Time

Sometimes listeners are surprised to find a familiar tune lurking behind the lyrics of a new song. Songwriters may revisit and reuse existing compositions, hoping to catch a listener’s attention through something familiar. The Civil War era song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” not only resembles an earlier song, but also inspired a number of parodies.