As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I research objects within The Henry Ford’s collections that tell entrepreneurial stories. Most recently, I delved into the Label Collection’s food labels – a collection of beautiful labels from canned food and West Coast fruit crates. While examining this collection, I was drawn to the eye-catching and artistic designs and took note of the lithographers’ signatures. A recurring name was the Schmidt Lithograph Company. Further research in our collections database revealed other items designed by this lithography firm, including seed packets and a recipe booklet. These objects help tell the story of Max Schmidt and the evolution of his successful company.
Crate Label, “Victor Vineyard Tokay Grapes,” circa 1920, designed by Schmidt Lithograph Company THF293997
Max Schmidt was born in Germany in 1850. At the age of fourteen – not wanting to enter his family’s traditional medical practice – Schmidt set sail around the world for six years as a cabin boy, arriving in San Francisco in 1871. Speaking little to no English, Schmidt took odd jobs until he found himself working for engraving and lithography companies. These new jobs in California gave him the opportunity to hone his artistic skills.
In 1874, Schmidt ventured into a partnership with Frederick Beuhler, creating pictorial cuts for local newspapers. A “cut” refers to an image or illustration that can be reproduced through mass printing. Traditionally, this would have been done using woodcuts, but Schmidt and Beuhler utilized the new etching technique known as zincography. This process, which involved using a stylus to cut lines into a zinc metal plate, was more efficient and allowed their company to quickly become the printing plate supplier for all the San Francisco newspapers.
Crate Label, “River Lad Brand Asparagus,” 1940-1950, designed by Schmidt Lithograph Company THF294037
In 1876, Schmidt went into business on his own, creating M. Schmidt & Company, which produced stock certificates and colored labels utilizing the process of stone lithography. This involved drawing images on soft stone, like limestone, and transferring the image from the stone to paper using a printing press. Several years later in 1883, the company was incorporated as Schmidt Label & Lithographic Company.
Crate Label, “Edna Alma Rancho Brand Grapes,” 1883-1899THF294345
Close-up view of the lithographer signature on the Edna Alma Rancho label THF294349
Lithographic firms often included a signature on their designs so that people would know who created them. Today, these signatures can help us date the labels in our collection. In this case, because we know the name “Schmidt Label & Lithographic Company” was used from 1883--1899, we know the label was created within that date range.
With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, more produce than ever before was being shipped across the country to eastern markets. Competition among growers and packing companies increased the necessity for labels, which aided in product and brand identification. In the 1870s and 1880s, the lithography industry in California swelled to meet the demand for labels. Los Angeles and San Francisco – where Schmidt’s company emerged as an industry leader – became major hubs for lithography.
Can Label, “Lynx Brand Puget Sound Salmon,” 1880-1900 THF109742
Just as his business was flourishing, Max Schmidt experienced a series of setbacks that could have very easily been the end of his lithography business. An unfortunate string of fires destroyed his factory in 1884 and again in 1886. Despite his misfortune, Max Schmidt – and his company’s reputation – persevered to continue producing high-quality commercial lithographs, including labels for fruit crates, canned fruits and vegetables, and canned salmon from the Pacific Northwest.
The turn of the century saw a trend towards consolidation of the lithography industry. Out of the dozens of lithograph companies that had opened to meet the demand for labels and other commercial lithographs, several larger companies emerged as the leaders. By this time, Schmidt’s company was one of the most well-known in the industry. Following the consolidation trend, Schmidt acquired San Francisco-based Dickman-Jones and the label department from H. S. Crocker to form the Mutual Label & Lithographic Company in 1899. Throughout the early 1900s, the Los Angeles-based firms of Western Lithograph Company and Los Angeles Lithographic Company were also associated with Mutual, which quickly became a powerhouse in the industry.
Title page for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Edition recipe booklet for “How to Eat Canned Salmon,” designed by Mutual Label & Lithographic Company THF294360
The 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire that hit San Francisco was devastating to the San Francisco lithography industry. Many companies lost all label designs, production equipment, and business records. Schmidt’s company was completely destroyed, but his previous financial success allowed him to quickly rebuild where other lithographers were not so lucky. When the new building opened in 1907, the Mutual name was replaced with Schmidt Lithograph Company, which remained the name of the business for the next six decades.
Stock Crate Label for an Unknown Brand of Asparagus, 1906-1966 THF293101
A common product for lithography companies was the stock label, like this one produced by the Schmidt Lithograph Company. These labels were void of brand identification so that it could be customized for any company. This was often a cost-efficient option for growers and packing houses.
Throughout the 1900s, the Schmidt Lithograph Company experienced tremendous success. Schmidt was a showman with a kind disposition, leading to great working relationships with the firm’s clients and employees. His success enabled the company to expand, establishing offices and factories in Florida, Texas, Honolulu, Utah, and along the West Coast. When Max Schmidt died in 1936, his company was still one of the most successful lithography businesses in the country. In 1966, Schmidt Lithograph Company was purchased by the Stecher-Traung to create the powerful firm, Stecher-Traung-Schmidt, which remained in business until 1994.
Close-up view of the lithographer signature on the Santa Brand Fruits label THF294347
Lithographer signatures can tell us where a design came from. Schmidt was a major player in the lithography industry with factories across the country. The signature on this label tells us that it was created in Schmidt’s Los Angeles factory.
Dodson Seed Store “Nasturtium” Seed Packet, 1966-1983 THF294259 Lithographers produced designs for a number of items including seed packets. The signature on the bottom of this seed packet notes that its design was created by the firm of Stecher-Traung-Schmidt.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford.