Two new books, Vintage: California Wine Labels of the 1930s and Well Aged: California Whiskey and Spirits Labels of the 1930s, illuminate a near-forgotten artisanal legacy tucked among the archives of the California Historical Society’s Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing. In the midst of the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of bottles of mass-manufactured, highly alcoholic wines and liquors invoked fantasies of the good life—due in no small part to their inebriating contents, but also aided by exquisite labels produced on an industrial scale by the anonymous designers working for the Lehmann Printing and Lithographing Company of San Francisco. Mass production does not typically correlate with the finest quality, but the Lehmann factory defied expectations: working within a house style defined by vivid hues, adventurous lettering, and Art Deco sensibility, these labels exhibited a seemingly inexhaustible creativity executed at the highest standards of craftsmanship. And as much as the labels advertised a particular brand, they also marketed the myth of California. The Lehmann artists frequently employed images of a romanticized past, whether medieval or Mission era, to brand the product as the fruit of an idyllic paradise free from the ills of history or even contemporary anxieties. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the beautiful labels gathered in Vintage and Well Aged reveal startling contrasts to—and similarities with—today’s design-driven culture.
Published in collaboration with the California Historical Society