Warren Dotz was surfing auction websites when he came across four lots of vintage dog-food labels up for grabs. Struck by a jolt of excitement, he bid a whopping maximum of $4,000 for the lots. With little competition for the batch of labels, though, Warren ended up snagging a haul of hundreds of labels for only $19.95 each. Happily, those labels that hail from the ’50s and ’60s now form the basis for his coffee-table tome, Dog Food For Thought.
After perusing a copy of the book, which pairs vintage logos and labels with canine-related quotes and witticisms, I called up Warren to get a peek into the world of collecting dog-food labels. (Spoiler: Our conversation includes the revelation about exactly what you might find if you open up a 60-year-old box of dog food.)
Dogster: Who did you end up buying those first lots of vintage labels from?
Warren Dotz: Well, it turned out it was an antique picker from the Midwest, who came across what was the work of a Midwestern pet food executive who was collecting all these labels as kind of corporate espionage to see what his competitors were doing. So on the back of many of the labels there are notes he wrote about the aroma and the consistency of the meat, and how many fat particles it looked like the food had. So that was the basis for the book, getting that big collection of labels.
Was there anything revelatory that the executive wrote on the back of the labels?
I was just shocked to see that there was writing on the back, and that it wasn’t a collection but something owned by an executive. I was looking at the front of the label because I’m interested in graphic design, but he’s more interested in looking at the ingredients. It struck me that people are fascinated with what they feed their pets and what the ingredients are.
When you buy these labels, do they usually come still attached to the can of food?
Well, some of the labels are just like a beat-up label that fell off a can and someone found it in an old garage, but sometimes I’ll actually buy one and the can will be still closed and it’s from the ’50s or ’60s.
Sometimes I get mint labels that were found in print shops, which had gone out of business — so they’d be saved in a filing cabinet somewhere. But believe me, it’s not fun to get a box with food in it, because you don’t know what’s going to be growing inside the box.
What’s the worst thing you’ve seen when opening up a package of dog food from the ’50s?
One of them I had to open up was called People Crackers — it was a fun twist on Animal Crackers and had the dog eating the policeman or a postman or a milkman. But there were little bugs in there — they were poking holes in the box, so I had to open it up and empty it out.
Were most of these small companies making dog food successful?
Basically what happened was there were a few companies making wet dog food that went in a can. Then during World War II there was a tin shortage, so that left a foothold for the companies that were making dry kibble foods. Then after the war and the moves to the suburbs, there were a lot of meat and poultry companies that had all these by-products, and they all pretty much opened up dog food manufacturing companies. If you went to a supermarket in the late ’50s, there were tons of companies to select from. But then over time those smaller companies were bought out by larger companies and everything became consolidated. So these smaller companies had their heyday in the late ’50s and the early ’60s.
Which of the companies from those days would you most like to see make a comeback?
I love a label called Doggy Doughnuts and another called Fetch, where the dog has a thought bubble thinking of his next meal. And I really like this one called K-9 Kola. We unraveled it but it was actually a soda can; it was meant to be a nutritious soft drink for dogs.
What sort of ingredients were in K-9 Kola?
It was like a gravy-based drink for a dog.
While researching vintage dog-food labels, did you keep coming across the same designers? Was there someone who was considered the star of designing dog-food labels?
One of my specialties is finding the artistic beauty in product and label art, and what I found with dog food labels is that it’s very difficult to find out who these illustrators were. When they were can labels, they were usually graphic designers who worked in-house or were hired by the printing companies, and they did it for the dog food companies. So it’s really hard to find out who these people were. I have not found the king of pet-food label art!
Is your vintage dog-food label collection complete? Or is there still a Holy Grail you’re in search of?
You know, I have to say that at the moment I’ve gotten everything that I saw that I liked. But you never know — tomorrow I could go on an auction site and see a label I’ve never seen before and I’ll have to have it.
There’s one label in the book that deserves a special mention, called Show. There’s a label dealer named Robert Booth, and his specialty is vegetable-can labels, so I had him on the lookout for pet-food labels. I came home one day from a vacation and he sent me the photo of this label called Show, and I thought it was the greatest label I’d ever seen. I like it because it’s from the ’70s, when in the world of logos and branding there was a move to simplify the look of logos — the Show label is great because it’s almost in the shape of a zen symbol, with dog’s tongue and his eyes. It’s just a terrific label.
Dog Food for Thought: Pet Food Label Art, Wit & Wisdom by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain is out now via Insight Editions. You can also check out Warren’s other design-tactic projects over at his website.
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About Phillip Mlynar: The self-appointed world’s foremost expert on rappers’ cats. When not penning posts on rap music, he can be found building DIY cat towers for his adopted domestic shorthair, Mimosa, and collecting Le Creuset cookware (in red). He has also invented cat sushi, but it’s not quite what you think it is.