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The History of Labels & Labelling Technologies

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Aimee is a digital marketing specialist who loves all things history. She enjoys writing content about topics she finds interesting.

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I touched a bit on the history of the self-adhesive label in my article 'R. Stanton Avery – The Inventor of Stickers'. In this article, I want to look at the history of labels & labelling technologies more in depth.


Labels are EVERYWHERE nowadays - in your home, in supermarkets and used in practically every industry. Smithers latest market report ‘The Future of Label Printing to 2024’ values the label market to be worth $41.02 billion. That’s a substantial amount and if you’re one of the market-leaders in this industry, you’re set up for life.


So, we know how the label industry is valued now, but where did it all start?

The Ancient History

Now, I can tell you all about the adhesive label, which I will do later in this article. However, there’s more to this story than your typical paper label with a sticky back on.

Labels are used for product identification and this existed thousands of years before the first adhesive label was born…

We sometimes forget that common items have a big history, labels have changed to reflect the times and developments of different eras.

Historians can trace labelling all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians, archaeologists have found pricing and product descriptions plastered to the wall of ancient cities. Along with this, in 1352BC when Egypt’s King Tutankhamun died, he was buried with his favourite wine and the container had inscriptions of what type of wine it was, when it was made, who made it and where it was made.

Years passed after this and we can see another example shown in the early 1700s CE when a French monk named Dom Pérignon (you might recognise the name if you’re a fan of champagne) wrote on a piece of parchment and attached it to a bottle of wine with string.

King Tutankhamun

King Tutankhamun

The Emergence of Lithography

Product labels as we now know them, which use an adhesive technique, were not invented until the 1800s with the creation of lithography. Lithography used a gum to adhere colourful paper labels to a surface. This process of printing was based on water not being able to mix with oil. A lithography limestone was treated to repel the ink in certain places and let the ink stick in others.

So, who created this process? It was a German actor and playwright named Alois Senefelder. He was having difficulty being able to print his play ‘Mathilde von Altenstein due to his financial status – he was heavily in debt. He experimented with oil and ink and eventually created the first lithographic and planographic print in the world.

The gum paste created from lithography had to be licked to be activated, then it could stick on products and services, creating the adhesive label.

Lithography developed over the years with many publishers, painters and even land surveyors finding the technique extremely useful. It’s also still seen nowadays with envelopes which we have to lick to activate the stickiness.

Lithography Printing Press

Lithography Printing Press

The Adhesive Label

With lithography becoming the method of the top label manufacturers, adhesive labels were being used on fruit crates, wine, beer, pill bottles and more. Manufacturers kept developing this technique and in the 1850s, colour printing was significantly improved.

Before the development of colour printing, manufacturers had to hand-paint labels – this was expensive and time consuming so only certain exclusive products had colourful labels displayed.

Manufacturers saw the potential of coloured labels by seeing their customers choose a well-presented product as it caught their interest. They developed colour printing to try and get ahead of their competitors who were selling the same product.

Invention of the Self-Adhesive Label

A great story of a man who went from living in a rented chicken coop to owning a billion-dollar company.

I’m sure you know this story if you’ve read my previous article about it, but it’s something I never get tired of hearing.

Back in 1935, a man named R. Stanton Avery used a loan of $100 from his fiancé to create and patent the worlds first die-cut labelling machine. His labels featured a paper surface, a coat of adhesive and a silicone coated liner fondly named the self-adhesive label (also known as stickers).

This invention was a breakthrough for the label industry – Avery’s labels could directly stick to products and surfaces without the need of licking them to activate the stickiness.

Avery’s invention started to roll out on a mass scale to industries all over the country and the world. His company, now named Avery Dennison, is still a major industry player to this day, as of June 2021, reports say that the net worth of the company is around $17 billion.

R. Stanton Avery

R. Stanton Avery

Technologies Advancing

The advancements of the label didn’t stop there, many people saw the potential in this already massive industry and began developing the labelling process even further.

In 1951, two men named Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver invented the barcode, which has become a central part of supermarkets. However, they took a while to take off – Business Week called them ‘the supermarket scanner that failed’ in 1976, how wrong they were! It took 20 years before this invention was given the credit it deserved.

The barcode design you see in supermarkets today was created by a man named George Laurer as his vertical bars design was more suitable and printed better than the circular barcode Woodland and Silver created.

As computers developed, so did the label printer and soon it became an affordable option for individuals to have them in their home rather than solely companies owning them. Label-making software was introduced and people could print their own labels in the comfort of their own home.

the-history-of-labels-labelling-technologies

Labels in the Present Day

As you can imagine, labels are still being developed and we now have full-colour labels and stickers which can have practically any design on them. There are even collectors of the most unique stickers in the world. With a quick Google search, I can find all sorts of labels such as holographic, transparent, glossy, 3D, furry, matte – anything you can think of.

the-history-of-labels-labelling-technologies

I hope you enjoyed this article! Did anything surprise you about the history of labels?

Resources & Further Reading:

© 2021 Aimee

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