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Toward the end of the 19th century Oregon's salmon canning industry was in its prime. Canneries on the Columbia River promoted their brand of canned salmon using labels with slogans, trademarks, and illustrations. With 29 canneries operating in 1889, the competition was extensive and the product was not unique, at least along the Lower Columbia River. Canneries protected their trademarks by registering the labels with the Secretary of State under Oregon's 1864 trademark law. Canned salmon trademarks were among the most frequently registered products during the first 40 years of the law.

Most cannery labels in the Archives date from 1880 to 1900 and were used by companies in Astoria. Other labels come from canneries in Coos County, Portland, Tillamook, Celilo in Wasco County and Anacortes, Washington. Labels were usually 9 x 4 inches with bright red, yellow, or blue backgrounds with frilly graphic designs around edges. Often labels had illustrations of salmon the size of porpoises flying through the air above the surface of a calm sea.

Several labels portray fishermen, their boats and gear, lighthouses, and large sailing vessels on the Pacific Ocean or Columbia River. The fishermen were often shown wearing squall hats, knee-high boots, Mackintosh overcoats, and heavy beards.

Since the canneries had the art work for the labels completed by lithographers in San Francisco, Philadelphia, or New York, the accuracy of the illustrations varies. One label implies an oddly shaped Mt. Hood can be seen from Tillamook Bay. Another depicts an Eskimo spearing salmon in an Arctic mountain range. The labels give insight to popular views of the Northwest in the 1880s.

The illustrations touch on several classical, historical, frontier, and political themes and myths designed to sell products in the late 19th century. Illustrations include a large screaming eagle perched on a globe on the S.D. Adair & Co. label; a Spartan-like warrior armored with a sword and shield protected the Invincible Brand salmon can. Another label shows a cherub riding an oversized salmon which is controlled by horse reins. The Thistle Packing Co. placed a cooked salmon on a platter which was held up by a Greek column.

Labels that give a popular sense of history include the Ocean Canning Co. of Astoria which shows Indians landing a canoe full of salmon at their waterside teepee encampment.

Another company shows a rugged Northwesterner standing on a log using a large pole to guide the log through rapids. In an effort to catch the Anglo-American market, British themes were used to promote the English Flag and Victoria Cross brands. An attempt to capture regional markets or perhaps avoid insult was made by the Portland Packing Co. when it registered its Robert E. Lee brand, with silver-grey edges, on the same day in 1892 it registered its General U.S. Grant brand.

Another label pictures not only the cannery manager, a man with a very long beard, but also the cannery complex. The view of Badollet & Companies cannery shows a barn-like building built on stilts along the shore of the Columbia River near Astoria. Smaller out-buildings on the same platform are connected to the main building. A smokestack is held up by 3 tightened wires. A long pier with a small building at the end juts out from the cannery to the river where boats dock. Several fishermen in boats pull in nets. A dense forest of evergreens on a steep river bank and a range of mountains show in the background.

Labels also give cooking directions and measures to take to ensure the salmon was safe to eat. One company claimed no lead alloy was used in their can. Another promised a "choice middle cut" of "extra fine fat salmon fresh from the nets." The directions mention salmon could be served cold or hot, but warned consumers to boil the can for 20-30 minutes before opening. Although the salmon was canned in Oregon, most distribution was in San Francisco.

(Text from Historical Perspectives, Newsletter of the Oregon State Archives, Winter 1991 Vol. VI, No. 1, written by Greg Williams)