Looking back at food: from the history of food labels.

A couple of days ago I took another benefit of doing my studies at Leeds and paid a visit to Marks & Spencer’s Company Archive which is home to  thousands of historical records documenting the evolution of the company from the very inception until present day. The collection is divided into different themes – my focus was, obviously, on the Food and Home section.  I contacted the team in advance and was very welcome to come and use the archive’s facilities and explore the collections, and by the time I arrived the next day five boxes full of food labels and packaging dating from the 1960s to early 2000s were waiting for me, kindly retrieved by staff members to appease my curiosity. That was an amazing research experience – being able to go back in times and see what food packaging looked like half a century ago – these labels do indeed tell stories and I think that’s what “talking history” is about. By looking at the labels, their physical appearance and, especially, content one can imagine how society was developing, what issues and concerns predominated and what mattered to people at different points in time. But it’s better to see once than hear a hundred times, so I’ll take a chance and, from the company’s kind permission, will show you some of the most “talking” labels. Labels dating back to 1960s will be featured in this post, while those from later periods (1980s and 1990s) will appear in the second part.  So here we go…


fingers 1960St Michael Fruit Shortcake Fingers. There is not much I can add to this, as you see! The packaging is really ascetic – a transparent cellophane with a brand name, product description and the indication of minimum weight. You can hardly imagine how consumers’ information needs could be satisfied by such a label, but what the producer was legally obliged to tell about the product was limited to this, really. You can also imagine what information would certainly be present should the sweets be sold in our days: What fruit? How much fruit? How many fingers? How many calories in them? In one? And the present day producer would certainly compliment the label with an image of a juicy, fleshy piece of fruit (and maybe claim it can be part of your five-a-day, too)…

fruit pie 1960…just as on this St Michael Fruit Pie box, where we have even more imagery than it would be currently allowed on a product claiming to contain blackcurrant and apples – other fruits featured on the label would not be allowed if they did not actually make part of the pie, and the amount of blackcurrant and apples would need to be disclosed as a percentage of the final product.

coffee `1960sCompare this coffee packaging with your favourite jar you certainly have in your cupboard. Modern coffee labels bear all kind of information – it does indeed matter what sort of coffee it is, where it was produced, whether it is fair-trade… You didn’t ask such questions in the 1960s, though.

arrowrootThis one was a puzzle, really! What is arrowroot anyway? The dictionary tells me that this is “a herbaceous Caribbean plant from which a starch is prepared”. Apparently, since the 1960s the food industry has found a better source of starch as I have never come across such an “edible object” in contemporary supermarkets or grocery shops.


creams 1960sThis particular label caught my attention with the comment “contents as illustrated except where replacement is unavoidable” – I found it really interesting as I don’t remember seeing any similar claim on present-day products. What you see is what you get principle must have been working well back in the 1960s. Shame it is just a label and I could not check whether the contents indeed matched the illustration or the replacement was unavoidable in case of this particular pack of biscuits.

butterWhat is noteworthy about this product is the “very fresh” claim– I don’t think you can find butter with one week shelf-life (which is indeed the best indication of the product’s freshness and absence of preservatives) in a modern supermarket…





to be continued…


2 responses to “Looking back at food: from the history of food labels.

  1. This post shows the evolution of the food packaging label. The information given in this page shows the importance of the food packaging labels, and the change in life style. Thanks for sharing these information with us.

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