December 31, 2003
People collect all kinds of labels for ink, perfumes, syrups, vinegar, mineral water, whiskey, rum, beer, wine, sardines, match boxes, fruit crates and so on. These collections are numerous and sometimes massive, containing twenty, forty or even hundreds of thousands of items. Very few people collect olive oil labels. This is curious, since many olive oil label designs are splendid and resemble images on wine, whiskey, rum, beer and other labels. However, in my opinion, olive oil labels tend to be even classier. The vast majority of those that I have seen suggest superior quality: superbly drawn coats of arms, beautiful women, knights on horses, generals, lions, eagles, griffins, angels, goddesses, chariot scenes, manors, castles and the like. And to emphasize quality even further, liberal use was and still is made of gold and decorative ornaments. Of course, many of these images are created to be distinctive and easily identifiable, which is useful for marketing purposes. Other labels feature a grove scene (olive pickers), olive branches or olive trees, a horse-powered olive press, a large pottery vase, a city scene, a statue, an anchor, a butterfly, an elephant, a dove, a swallow, flowers or a dragon, to mention just a few.
The oldest olive oil label that I am aware of dates from about 1860, according to two different independent sources, and was reportedly used by the private supplier to Napoleon IV. It is a very ornate design consisting of a red and gold coat of arms surrounded by gold scrollwork. All of the gold is in relief. The earliest Italian olive oil label that I have seen dates from 1899, but it is safe to say that Italian producers started using labels long before that. American olive oil labels date back at least to the 1890s, and some of these old designs are strikingly similar to the designs on French olive oil labels of that era, some of which were stone-lithographed. There are probably some very old Spanish and Portuguese olive oil labels as well, but I have not seen any. Nowadays, Italy is definitely leading the way, as Italian artists are creating many excellent, beautiful and intensely interesting designs. One very striking contemporary Italian design shows a monk climbing an olive tree. French, Spanish, Moroccan, Tunisian, Algerian, American and Portuguese producers and packers are using fine designs as well.
Most of us probably associate olive oil with cooking. However, in North America at least, olive oil has been sold in pharmacies for medicinal purposes since the early part of this century, and some of the labels are quite attractive, especially the older ones, some depicting an olive branch with gold olives, others a red cross and scrollwork. In Israel, olive oil is used for sacramental purposes as well. Some of the labels in question depict religious artifacts, such as an ancient oil lamp.
I believe that olive oil labels offer some very fine artwork that has not received due attention.
Mark Wickens has a collection of about 1,300 different labels. He would like to correspond with other olive oil label collectors for the purpose of swapping labels or information, or with anyone else who might be willing to trade olive oil labels for other items. contact at firstname.lastname@example.org or Website: http://pages.infinit.net/wickens/