Grand Stuff – Niall McCormack

Posted 1 month ago in More

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Niall McCormack has painstakingly pieced together the history of Irish brand labels in Grand Stuff, a wonderful new publication. In this edited version of his introduction, he sets out the context for this project and collection.

“Labels are physical manifestation of a complex mix of technological, commercial, social, ideological and artistic forces. Each one is both a product and signifier of its time.”


“That Monday morning, I set out for the chemist’s shop in Cabra Road with unwonted pride […] My duties in both shops at first were fairly menial. I would stack the shelves, weigh packets of Epsom salts, Glauber salts, borax, and boric acid into small paper bags and label them.” – Edna O’Brien, Country Girl: A Memoir

Despite, or perhaps because of, the sheer ubiquity of labels, it is easy to dismiss them as insignificant. Yet, as Claude Humbert points out in Label Design, once we imagine a world without labels, we quickly realize how much they dominate our daily lives.

This is the first attempt to survey label art produced in Ireland. It covers the century from the 1890s to the early 1990s. Included in Grand Stuff are over six hundred examples of labels produced for Irish products, services, charities and political causes with the majority being for commercial companies. Labels are seldom considered to be significant cultural objects. Their small size and ephemeral nature, as well as the fact that they are mass produced and for the most part anonymous, makes them easy to dismiss as mere detritus of the modern world rather than markers and drivers of modernity in their own right.

Labels are physical manifestation of a complex mix of technological, commercial, social, ideological and artistic forces. Each one is both a product and signifier of its time. From them we can trace the development of public taste; changes in the political and constitutional position of the country; advances in print and communication technology; the evolution of design and advertising; and the decline and consolidation of industries.

Both Jack B. Yeats and James Joyce understood the importance of printed ephemera and label art as rich repositories of society’s foibles and predilections, and an integral part of the fabric of visual culture. Yeats’ scrapbooks are a rich tapestry of ephemeral scraps, “wildly various in their bits and pieces” (Ireland, Literature, and the Coast: Seatangled, Nicholas Allen). They include Irish labels for Banba’s and Árd-Rí Cigarettes, Jacob & Co’s Fruit Cake and ‘Ireland Demands Home Rule’, featuring a portrait of John Redmond, as well as wrappers for The Northlight and Mac’s Smile razor blades. The scrapbooks are, according to Allen, “experiments in eccentricity, private documents assembled for pleasure and memory”. They show Yeats’ passion for visual culture extended well beyond the hallowed walls of the gallery and museum, into the everyday: the home, the street, the shop, the pub and café, the boxing ring and racetrack, the cinema and circus.

Joyce shared this fascination for ephemera. He interprets the label as folk art and visual jingle, including them as part of a broad medley of spoken and printed ephemera — music hall songs, doggerel, advertising slogans, jokes, letters, street signs — that sit “side by side with the evanescent stuff of consciousness, memories, fantasies, and fleeting impressions”. References to labels in Ulysses highlight multiple aspects of their nature and uses. Firstly, the label as decorative colour: “redlabelled bottles” and winejars with “scarlet labels”. Then, the label as information carrier in the form of preparation instructions: “Epps’s soluble cocoa […] proceeded according to the directions for use printed on the label”. Next, the label as branding and intellectual property: “The name on the label is Plumtree. A plumtree in a meatpot, registered trade mark. Beware of imitations”. And finally, the label as social signifier with the hotel luggage label acting as a symbol of worldliness: “a rectangular trunk, quadruple battened, having capped corners, with multicoloured labels”.


The Collection

The labels in Grand Stuff, with a few exceptions, come from my personal collection and were bought from online auctions and specialist sellers. They are representative of what has survived, a subset of the much larger production of label art in Ireland during this period. Many are unused label stock that remained at the close of a business. The rarity of a label may be down to a product having limited distribution or longevity or a company scrupulously keeping labels from circulation to avoid them falling into the hands of potential counterfeiters.

Labels for iconic Irish brands such as Jacob’s, Mi‑Wadi and Sudocrem proved elusive as did more local examples such as McDaid’s Football Special, Kirker Kola and Cousins & Company’s Lemon Soda. Other labels did come up for sale but achieved higher prices than I could justify, including a selection of wonderful nineteeth-century labels for The Irish Match Company. As well as availability, the selection of labels was also informed by my aesthetic preferences although I have tried to show a fair representation of the breadth of visual styles evident during the period.

Before the turn of the nineteenth century, labels were printed by hand on wooden hand presses. Their use significantly increased with the invention of the paper making machine by Nicolas-Louis Robert in 1789 and the invention of lithography by Alois Senefelder in 1796.

The earliest examples of Irish labels included are for photographers, stationers and fancy goods sellers from Dublin in the 1860s. These are from Orla Fitzpatrick’s extensive collection of Irish cartes de visite. Affixed to the reverse of the photographic cards, they are simple single-colour designs printed from copperplate engraving or by letterpress. The labels are trimmed by hand and have an amateur quality despite being for businesses in prime city centre locations on Grafton Street and Lower Ormond Quay.



Only in a small number of cases can we ascertain the name of the designer or illustrator who created these labels. Olive Whitmore created a number of poster designs for the Royal Dublin Society’s Horse Show between the 1920s and 1950s. The stamp version of her 1931 Horse Show poster loses none of its compositional strength despite being simplified to allow for reproduction by letterpress at a small size.

Victor Penney was one of the leading graphic artists working in Ireland in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1931, while still a student, his work was ranked in first place in a competition held by An Gúm to establish a panel of book cover designers. Penney went on to design a series of striking book covers for the publishers throughout the 1930s. He enjoyed a long and fruitful freelance career designing brochures and packaging for Arnotts, Jacob’s, Dubarry and Jurys among many others. His design for May Roberts Olive Oil is a modest example of his work but reminds us that the labels featured here were created by talented designers and printers who spent their lives working in Ireland’s small but thriving graphic arts sector.

Labels designed by Guus Melai and Jan de Fouw are also included in the book. Both designers came to Ireland from the Netherlands in the 1950s to work for Sun Advertising, designing publicity material for Aer Lingus. Melai and de Fouw were at the leading edge of a wave of talented Dutch designers who came to Ireland in the 1950s and made a significant contribution to Irish graphic design during the subsequent decades.


Social and political contexts

Labels contain information beyond the purely utilitarian details of the product and the maker. In some instances they contain traces of the social and political context of the country at the time they were created. When a label design evolves over time it is possible to identify these social or political changes in each subsequent issue of the label.

One good example of this is the progression of labels for Perry’s India Pale Ale. Robert Perry began brewing in Rathdowney, County Laois in 1831. The company, incorporated in 1877, enjoyed considerable success for the best part of a century before being bought by Guinness and eventually closed in 1966, a fate that befell almost all of the local Irish breweries in the mid-twentieth century.


The earliest label for Perry’s India Pale Ale included here is from around the 1880s. The label prominently displays the royal warrant that the brewery had recently received from Queen Victoria. Around the bottom of the label is the text ‘Brewers to Her Majesty in Ireland’. In the next example of a label for Perry’s India Pale Ale, from circa 1920, a significant shift has occurred with the royal warrant replaced with the Déanta i nÉirinn national trademark symbol. The emblem, adopted by the Irish Industries Development Association in 1905, aimed to protect Irish goods against the selling of fake Irish products in foreign markets as well as to instill patriotic spirit in Irish consumers at home. The final example of a Perry’s IPA label is from the 1950s and includes the text ‘Brewed in Republic of Ireland’. While the overall design of the label remained largely unchanged over seven decades, close inspection reveals a pragmatic shift in affiliation from royalist to republican in parallel with the constitutional position of the country.



The length of time that a particular label design remained in use varied considerably. The classic Guinness ‘security’ label was in use from 1896 to 1953 while Cherry’s labels including the text “Brewed by New Ross Brewery Ltd” were in use for just two years from 1952 to 1954. Before 1952 the business was registered as Cherry Brothers Ltd of New Ross. When Guinness acquired the brewery in 1952 the name changed to New Ross Brewery Ltd with locations listed at New Ross and Waterford. In 1954 Guinness ceased brewing at the New Ross plant and moved production to the Waterford location only, previously Davis-Strangman’s Mary Street Brewery, under the name Cherry’s Breweries Ltd.

While most of the brands featured in Grand Stuff have long since been lost to history, it is interesting to note that some of the lesser known businesses have displayed impressive endurance. Bottling companies such as J O’Donohoe of Enniscorthy (bottlers of Jameson Whiskey and Power’s Whiskey) and Kelly & Co of Tipperary (bottlers of Jameson Liqueur Whiskey) both started in the late nineteenth century and are still in business today.

W&G Baird of Belfast (printers of AA Watt & Co Ltd Old Irish Whisky label was founded in 1862 and continues to produce high quality printing to this day.



Despite their ephemeral nature, labels can archive an uncharacteristic longevity. In some instances these slight pieces of printed paper form part of the little remaining evidence of major businesses, lasting longer than their once impressive premises. Such is the case with the Ulster Brewery’s Glen Road brewery in Belfast which was established in 1897 and demolished in 2009. Maguire and Paterson’s Hammond Lane match factory in Dublin produced six billion matches a year at its height. The factory was demolished in 2002.

Many of the labels are for much smaller concerns but are no less significant for that. Each one tells its own story, the combination of which is a rich patchwork of the social, cultural and visual history of Ireland from the end of the nineteenth century until the beginning of the 1990s.

Grand Stuff: Label Art from Ireland by Niall McCormack is published by Hi Tone Books, limited edition of 500, €30


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