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The Evolution of Labeling, from Lithography to Universal Product Codes

5 Key Developments That Have Helped Create the Labeling Industry We Know Today

History of Labels

For as long as we’ve had packaged products, we’ve had a form of labeling. As far back as the 9th Century BCE, basic illustrations were used to indicate the product inside barrels, wineskins, and other rudimentary containers. The first wine label was used in the early 1700s, when a French monk used a piece of string to attach a scrap of handwritten parchment to a bottle of wine. At a similar time, the first pharmaceutical labels were being used on medical containers. The need for producers to let consumers know what’s inside their packaging – and how to use it, or what to expect of it – is an ancient necessity. But how did we get from rudimentary drawings to the high-quality, dynamic labels we have today? We went back in time to explore the evolution of the labeling industry.

Tin Cans and Lithography

When tin canning burst onto the scene in 1810, producers were forced to figure out a way to let consumers know what was inside the opaque, sealed containers without opening them. Some tried having artists label the cans manually, while others attempted hand-stamping the tin; however, both methods were expensive and inefficient.

Lithography proved to be the solution. Newly invented, this printing process uses oil-based ink to press images onto paper. These prints are known for being particularly clean and accurate, making for an easily readable label that could even be printed in multiple colors.

Paper Labels

By the 1880s, the development of an adhesive gum made attaching paper labels directly to bottles and cans possible. Though still using the lithograph method, producers could now print their labels on paper and adhere them to the package, instead of printing onto the material directly. The gum used at the time was similar to what we find on envelopes today: You had to lick it before it would stick.

Robert Gair’s invention of the pre-cut paperboard box in 1890 also spurred the growth of paper-based packaging. The development simplified the mass production of foldable paper boxes, which could now be cut and purchased in bulk. When in 1896 the National Biscuit Company, known today as Nabisco, started using cardboard boxes for its biscuits, the paper-based packaging officially caught on.

The Self-Adhesive Label

Although paper labels could now be applied to tins and glasses, the process of applying glue to the back of the labels was messy. In response, R. Stanton Avery developed the self-adhesive label, simplifying the application and changing the game. Now, labels could be readily attached to most packages – no glue needed.

Package Coding

As the market continued to expand, producers recognized a need to organize products in warehouses and at distributors. The solution was the SKU, or shelf-keeping unit: a unique series of numbers that identified each individual item. This concept was translated to retail with the UPC or bar code, invented in 1970, which was not only scannable but universal, allowing the same code to be used for a single product across retailers. Most labels now include this code, streamlining movement down the supply chain.

Interactive Labeling and Beyond

Today’s labels are limited by only the brand’s imagination. Thanks to the development of scannable QR codes, they can even be interactive. With these codes, consumers can explore the brand’s website, landing page, social media and more – all without leaving the point-of-sale.


Want to make the most out of today’s labeling options? Contact us today at (904) 263-2804 or schedule a free consultation to learn more about our custom packaging and labeling solutions.


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