From Yesterday’s Grocery Shelf

The Sunday Times-Picayune


New Orleans, December 4, 1977
Labels representing more than 700 locally produced items that were on the grocery shelf during New Orleans’ turn-of-the-century Gilded Age recently were discovered in an old printer’s proof file at the Walle Corporation, a New Orleans firm that has been printing trade labels for almost a century. The one on the cover was made about 1896 for Fairview Store on Fairview Plantation in St. Mary Parish. As is the case with many of the labels, this one has its own story. Fairview Plantation was owned by John Pharr, and the store was managed by his brother-in-law, Milton Hamilton, father of Harold, the child on the label, about 3 years old at the time. Although Harold is wearing a U.S. Navy sweater in the photo, he was destined for a landlubber’s life as a successful businessman in Cleveland, Ohio. He later ran a retreat for alcoholics in Virginia and died in 1950.


by Larry Bartlett

The weather was so blustery and raw on that December day in 1909 that Junior Mays wanted to spend the entire afternoon baking his backside by the big new stove in the parlor. It was a tall nickel-plated Perfection Smokeless Oil Heater that had cost his dad a whole two dollars! But Junior regretfully abandoned his warm station as his mom called to him impatiently from the kitchen. Reminding him to button his jacket, she handed him a shopping list and sent him to the Soraparu Market down by the Jackson Avenue Ferry.

As Junior pulled his rattling Red Flyer wagon along Chippewa Street, he scanned the list...a big one because his mom was starting to stock up for Christmas. She wanted him to buy some Alligator Molasses, St. Charles Hotel Coffee, Ames Complexion Soap, Cakewalk Oysters, Honesty Oranges, Talisman Flour, Tabasco Okra, Dickey Bird Celery Soft Drinks, Ole Mammy Shortening, Silver Moon Butter, a can of Sneed’s Chicken Brunswick Stew, White Rabbit Starch, Tulane Pepper, King Komus Sugar, a package of La Corona Perfection of Alimentary Paste (spaghetti), a can of Pride of Gulf Shrimp, Papoose Orange Drink and, for his dad, some Jackson Square Cigars and a package of Khedizes Cigarettes. Junior’s mom always specified the brand of each product, and she liked brands that were produced right in Louisiana.

Most of those old local brands have long since disappeared and so has the Soraparu Market, Junior’s old Irish Channel neighborhood and Junior himself. But the bright product labels that Junior sought out on the grocery shelves 68 years ago have reappeared, as ornate and colorful as New Orleans’ turn-of-the-century Gilded Age. Several thousand antique labels representing more than 700 locally-produced grocery items, were recently found in an old printer’s proof file at Walle Corporation a New Orleans firm that’s been printing trade labels for almost a century.

The Walle company has assigned the entire collection of antique labels to Mrs. Sharon Dinkins, operator of Framesmith Gallery on Terpsichore Street, in order to have them catalogued, researched and prepared for acquisition by museums and private collectors. Mrs. Dinkins explains that the Walle labels represent almost every brand and product manufactured in the New Orleans area at the turn of the century, and also preserve the memory of Frederick Von Ehren who was one of the finest illustrators and commercial artists ever to work in the city.

“The company was founded in 1886 by German immigrants Gustave Koeckert, a skilled map maker, and by John Walle, who had previously worked as a wagon driver for a New Orleans tobacco company,” she says. “Frederick Von Ehren was hired as an illustrator and was with the company from the day it opened its doors in 1886 until he was forced to retire in 1952 at the age of 91. During most of his career with Walle, he commuted to New Orleans each day by train from his home in Waveland, Miss. As the company’s chief artist, he produced delicately detailed product labels that often featured romantic, fanciful illustrations of elves, exotic ladies and mystical scenes from the wonderland of his mind.

“He completely identified with his job: after he was retired by the company, he would frequently enter the building through a window in order to sit at his old desk. He died in 1956, and his pioneer work in illustration and color printing has yet to be adequately recognized.”

However, the thousands of labels being catalogued by Mrs. Dinkins represent an almost complete portfolio of Von Ehren’s work. “Quite a few people in town knew that these labels existed in Walle’s archives, but they had been largely ignored by historians because of a greater interest in Walle’s retrospective collection of Mardi Gras printing.

From 1887-1901, the Krewe of Rex had all of its Mardi Gras printing done in France, but the Walle company began doing their invitations and other art printing in 1902, and still has Rex’s patronage today. “It was Von Ehren who designed the Rex invitations, posters and souvenirs, but I don’t believe you’ll find him credited in any books on the history of Mardi Gras,” says Mrs. Dinkins. “However, the full range of Von Ehren’s skill and creativity is best seen in these labels which have come down to us in mint condition, almost by accident.”

The antique labels are printers’ proofs that were casually filed in large wooden cabinets when the Walle company was located at 220 Camp St. In 1920, the company outgrew those quarters and moved to its present location on Tchoupitoulas St., and the cabinets of printers’ proofs were placed in an obscure location in the new print shop. “The cabinet was pretty well sealed up, because the handles were missing from the drawers,” she recalls. “For this reason, people hadn’t been able to open the drawers casually and rummage through the labels...they were as fresh as they had been on the day they were printed half a century ago.”

In cataloguing the thousands of labels, Mrs. Dinkins has found that the largest portion of them, were printed for the coffee and sugar industries. “During the first decade of the 20th century, there was a tremendous boom in coffee imports,” she says. “In 1900, New Orleans’ port received only five percent of the nation’s coffee imports, but its coffee import tonnage had increased 763 per cent by 1920. At that point, there were 2,900 coffee importers in New Orleans, compared with the few hundred that are active in the trade today.

“The sugar and coffee industries overlapped...enjoyed the same great explosion of activity in the first two decades of this century, and this prominence is reflected in the number of trade labels that were designed for local processors. The seafood packing industry—made possible by the invention of a New Orleans man—was also thriving during this period. The petroleum, citrus, soft drink and strawberry industries are prominently represented among these antique labels as well. During this early period of the 20th century, New Orleans was an industrial giant...this was our Gilded Age.”

As a pioneer in color printing, Walle graphically depicted the Gilded Age on its labels. “Many have been printed with a ‘bronzing’ technique, making it appear that gold leaf has been used on the labels,” she points out. “Walle was one of the first printing companies in the nation to master the four-color printing process, and may have been the first to print a label using a half-tone photograph. Aggressive and innovative, it became one of the major printers in the South at the turn of the century. Among these 700 trade labels are brands produced in Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, California, New York, Arkansas, Alabama, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.”

The Walle works offer intriguing insights into the social, political and artistic values in the U.S. four generations ago. Mrs. Dinkins notes that, with the women’s suffrage movement underway, the labels of that period were ambivalent concerning the way to depict modern woman. “The labels variously portrayed the pre-Jazz Age woman as a Southern belle, a country maiden, a mother-homemaker and as a suffragette,” she observes. “The women’s suffrage movement was a hot issue in those days, with women not receiving the right to vote until 1920, but Louisiana’s Cuban Coffee Company began producing a brand called Suffragette Coffee in 1916. ‘Women’s Rights’ was emblazoned across the label. That shows a different sort of marketing philosophy than one finds today. At the turn of the century, manufacturers were often anxious to identify their brand with a current fad or political movement. The Cuban Coffee Company wasn’t afraid of controversy surrounding its Suffragette Brand, but can you imagine someone manufacturing an Equal Rights Amendment Coffee or a Gay Rights Coffee today?”

She says that many of the labels show a sentimental and paronizing attitude toward black people. “The labels variously depict them in the roles of Uncle Tom, of the flashily dressed urban black, as the naive and fun-loving country black and as the loveable black mammy,” she says.

The labels also reflect Louisiana’s preoccupation with its French heritage through the use of such trade names as French Opera, French Market, French Maid, Maid of Orleans, Bourbon King and others. Labels appealed to customer’s patriotism as seen in the Civil War scene that decorated the bottles of Dr. Tichenor’s Antiseptic Refrigerant, the illustration of a World War I battlefield on the Patriot Coffee label and the depiction of Teddy Rooselt and fellow equestrians on the labels of Rough Rider Oysters. A number of brands acknowledge the growing trade union movement by announcing on the label that the enclosed product was the result of cooperation between capital and labor.

Von Ehren’s keen eye and his fondness for romantic landscapes have helped to preserve on these labels the scenes of long-forgotten plantations, river jetties, country stores, steamboats, and small local factories. These old local labels show the manufacturing at one time had a homey, small-town quality. Von Ehren frequently limned the face of a businessman, his child or even a favorite local character on a trade label. This folksy touch led to a major innovation in 1896 when the Walle company printed a label for Fairview Store in Fairview, La. The label featured a photograph of the store owner’s three-year old son, and represents one of the earliest uses of a half-tone photograph in commercial printing.

Mrs. Dinkins hopes that older Orleanians will help her in accumulating relevant historical information and anecdotes about the Walle labels. “When I first began working with the collection, my impulse was to call people whose families might have been connected with these out-of-business companies,” she says. “If I saw a name in the phone book that was even similar to the company name on a trade label, I’d call even if it were a private residence. But that approach proved to be too unwieldy. Now, I’m working with old city directories and with the archives of local coffee importing organizations like J. Aron & Co. and the Green Coffee Association of New Orleans.

“But in contacting older people who might remember these antique labels, I’ve found many interesting stories. For instance, I have labels printed for a yam packer in Scott, La., who sold his product under the brand name of ‘Aunt Lody,’ This label featured the picture of a forceful looking black woman wearing a tignon. I talked with an older resident of Scott, who remembered that there was actually an Aunt Lody who lived there years ago. He vividly recalled that most of the town turned out for a chivaree when she married her husband Boulon. Her son was a boxer who fought Luis ‘Bull of the Pampas’ Firpo in California. He lost but brought temporary fame to the town of Scott.”


Perhaps later generations will view these contemporary labels with the same sort of nostalgia we can feel upon seeing labels from Georgia Cracker Syrup, Jockey Club Cocoa (“It has the smack the others lack”), Goodbye Skeeter Chaser, Wirthbru Weigelstyle Beer, LSU Tobacos Elegantes, Indian Magic Plant Food and other once-popular items from yesterday’s grocery shelf.