By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   March 4, 2021

For many years, you couldn’t buy certain items, such as mattresses, in the U.S.A., unless they contained a federally required fabric label, or “tag.” I’m not sure exactly what information these labels provided, but what I do remember is that they also contained a very severe warning against removing them. Something like “DO NOT REMOVE, UNDER PENALTY OF LAW.” Nothing was said about the ultimate purchaser being exempt from this restriction. This caused much bewilderment, and some amusement, at the prospect of “mattress police,” perhaps arriving in the night, to make sure the required label was still there.

Ultimately, in the face of considerable ridicule, the law was amended, to enable adding of the words “EXCEPT BY THE CONSUMER.”

But the matter of product labeling continues to be of huge importance in our society. Today, even individual pieces of fruit and vegetables contain their own stuck-on labels, which are sometimes hard to get off. Indeed, as all kinds of glues, and other adhesive substances, have themselves proliferated, techniques of label-removal have had to struggle to keep up. My own experience with this problem has mainly concerned small plastic jars, such as often originally contain peanut butter or jam. The jars themselves, in their subsequent lives, are extremely useful, but if you want a completely clean one, you have to get rid of the paper label, which usually wraps all the way around, and is fastened by some kind of glue. Even after you soak off the label, which isn’t hard to do, you’re still left with rows of glue-spots, which will not cooperatively soak, or even scrape, off.

You probably know all about this, but it’s only recently that I have discovered a marvelous substance trademarked as “GOO GONE,” which makes all kinds of sticky adhesives disappear, and, in my case, has given me a large and embarrassingly growing collection of rescued jars, which simply seem too good to abandon to the “re-cyclers.” 

But product-labeling is only one small part of the vast field of applying visible, intelligible words, to identify and supply information concerning living and non-living items of all kinds. What good would a zoo or museum or library be without something to tell us what we are looking at? How often have you attended an event at which the first requirement is for you to put a label on yourself? Most pictures, wherever they appear in any published form, need some kind of caption, to make them meaningful. And of course, books need titles – although these often in themselves aren’t enough, and need to be supplemented by a publisher’s “blurb.”

The trouble is that, despite this abundance of labels, they are never present when you really want one. Nature does not provide labels. You have to learn the names which have been given to all the animals and plants, the mountains, lakes and rivers, the rocks, and all the other geographical and geological features, to say nothing of the immensity of objects beyond our own planet.

But, with all this concern, it may interest you to know that I myself once had a job which required making labels I didn’t understand, for items I never saw. As it happened, I was peculiarly qualified for this position. It was in the early 1960s, when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, taking any work I could get to help put me through. I was studying History, but I learned that the Botany Department had need for someone who knew something about printing. They had a little print-shop, on which they printed all their own labels for botanical specimens. Their equipment was of the very old-fashioned type, which required manual typesetting. This involved picking up individual pieces of metal type, each containing a letter or symbol, and “setting” them in a hand-held device called a “stick.” Some skill was needed, because the sectioned “case” containing the pieces of type didn’t have them in alphabetical order, and you had to learn the positions. Also, you had to put them in the stick backwards, and upside down.

Now it happened that some twenty years earlier, in Junior High School, I’d had a semester of “Print-Shop” – so I knew these, and other basics, of the art – and I got the job. Of course, I didn’t have the privilege of signing my work, which I never saw in use – but, for all I know, at least a few of the specimens in the world-famous Berkeley Herbarium still bear my labels.


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