Label Legacy: Muirson Label Company (San Jose, Calif.)

The Muirson Label Company operated in San Jose from 1916 until 1970 as the only label printing company in the Santa Clara Valley.  The Muirson Company and its talented artists created some of the most striking labels for the products of the Valley of Heart’s Delight.  Discover the history of the Muirson Label Company by exploring the place and its workings, meeting the people who founded and grew the company, and seeing the things that made Muirson a nationally recognized leader in the industry. 

People

In his personal history of the Muirson Label Company, Plant Life, Artistic Director Ralph Rambo wrote, “A manufacturing firm, large or small, has working components of men and machinery.” The men and women employed by a company create its character and culture, and leave a lasting impression on their community. In the case of the Muirson Label Company, many of these people stayed with the outfit for most of their working lives. George A. Muirson founded the firm; Robert Bentley and Charles Wright led the firm into its years of peak production. Ralph Rambo directed the artistic side of the process, and many others contributed to the company’s successes. The building was designed by noted architect William Binder for a site that had been owned by two men well-known in the annals of early California history. The Muirson Label Company owes its legacy to all of these people.

Forbes and Stockton

In 1844, James Alexander Forbes acquired the parcel of land on which the Muirson Label Company would later build its headquarters. He received the land – called El Potrero de Santa Clara – via a grant from Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena in 1844. Forbes was typical of the entrepreneurial European and American men who came to California during the Mexican Period (1821 – 1848). Born in Scotland in 1807, Forbes arrived in California on a whaling ship in 1831. He married a Californio woman, Ana Maria Galindo, and became a Mexican citizen. Forbes did little to develop El Potrero de Santa Clara, choosing to invest his capital in a flourmill on Los Gatos Creek. After declaring bankruptcy in 1856, Forbes sold El Potrero de Santa Clara – approximately 2000 acres – to Commodore Robert F. Stockton.

Robert F. Stockton is a most notable figure in California History. A native of New Jersey, Stockton commanded the United States Navy’s Pacific Squadron during the Mexican–American War. He was appointed the military governor of California in 1846, serving in that capacity for several months before turning over the position to John C. Fremont and returning to the East Coast. After retiring from the Navy in 1850, Stockton decided to develop his property at El Potrero de Santa Clara as a nursery. In 1853, he dispatched Christopher A. Shelton to California with a large inventory of stock for the nursery, which the Santa Clara Valley desperately lacked. The nursery – and thus Stockton indirectly – served a vital role in the development of fruit agriculture in the Santa Clara Valley.

George A. Muirson

George A. Muirson, founder of the Muirson Label Company, was a self-described “self-made man.” Born in Indiana in 1860, he and his family were living in San Jose by the early 1880s. Muirson worked as a bookkeeper and business manager for local newspapers. By the 1890s, he had formed a printing firm in partnership with his nephew Theodore M. Wright. In 1914, with backing from Robert I. Bentley Jr., family members and potential customers in the canning industry, Muirson founded the Muirson Label and Crate Company.

Muirson firmly believed that all workers should start at the bottom of a business and work their way to the top. All young men joining the firm, including his family members, served time in the production side of the business. Those who showed particular promise and diligence, like artist Ralph Rambo, were given opportunities to develop their talents and advance their careers. Rambo described him as a “kind, thoughtful employer.”

Muirson died in the great flu epidemic in 1918 at age 58; the San Jose Evening News called him one of the city’s “best known, best loved and most useful citizens.”

Robert I. Bentley, Jr.

Robert Bentley was an original investor in the Muirson Label and Crate Company. In addition to financial support, Bentley provided an invaluable gateway to the burgeoning agricultural industry. His father, Robert I. Bentley Sr. was president of the California Packing Corporation (CalPak) and a pioneer in the business. Robert Bentley was named Vice-President of the Muirson Label Company at its founding in 1914. Service in World War I briefly interrupted his career, but he returned and took over presidency of the company after his duty ended. He was Muirson’s president for 33 years and chairman of the board for ten.

Bentley’s considerable talent in business and sales brought the Muirson Label Company to a position of great prominence and success. He was responsible for the large expansion of the physical plant in the 1920s and 1930s. He also personally handled many of the big exclusive accounts on which Muirson built its reputation. Ralph Rambo wrote that Bentley was “a gay blade with irresistible personality and charm” who “had the inherent propensity of combining successful business transactions with the joy of living.” Robert Bentley died in 1968 at the age of 80.

Charles Wright

Charles Wright began working for his uncle George Muirson during World War I, when company Vice-President Robert Bentley was called to military service. Believing that all workers must understand the intricacies of his business, Muirson asked Charles to start work in the foundry. Ralph Rambo worked there at the time, and recalled in his unpublished book Plant Life, “When the early morning smoke and soot and flying parts of scotch-thrift machinery became evident, Charley abruptly departed from our midst. I clearly remember he made just one hurried remark as he shed his overall cocoon, ‘Keee-rist, let me outa here!’”

Wright went on to a long and distinguished career at Muirson, without knowing (according to Ralph Rambo) “one damn thing” about the technical side of the business. He briefly directed the plant after Muirson’s death and before Bentley’s return from service. Thereafter, Wright held the position of Sales Manager and Vice-President until his retirement in 1949. His sales technique was successful, if a bit unorthodox. Rambo wrote of his approach, “I claim he was the only salesman in the world who could enter a tough client’s office, chide and ridicule complaints about high prices or quality, wind up calling him a cranky, old S. of a B. and then walk out with an order for a million labels.” Charles Wright died in 1960.

William Binder

William Binder (pronounced “bender”) was born in San Francisco in 1871. Binder began his architectural career in San Jose in the 1890s, designing office buildings, hotels, theaters and other public buildings. He is well-known for his effective use of steel frame construction, an emerging technology of the early 20th century that allowed for taller and taller structures. Binder designed San Jose’s first steel frame building, the 7-story Garden City Bank Building, which was completed in 1907. Binder also designed most of San Jose’s early movie houses, including the Jose Theater (1904), the Hester (1927) and the Willow Glen (1933). The Muirson Label Company was one of William Binder’s few industrial projects. The original building at 425 Stockton Avenue was constructed in 1913 and opened in 1914.

Ralph Rambo

Ralph Rambo served as principle graphic artist and Art Director for Muirson Label Company for almost fifty years. His style and temperament pervaded all of the artwork created by Muirson for its customers throughout the nation. Rambo did not think of himself as a born artist, but the quality of his work, and that of the artists under his direction, speaks for itself.

Rambo was born in San Jose in 1894 and grew up on a prune orchard near present-day Cupertino. He graduated from Santa Clara High school in 1912; a few years later he married Katherine Coker, with whom he raised two sons. In 1916, Rambo’s career with Muirson began when he was hired to work in the foundry for a wage of $7 for a 48-hour workweek. His stint in the production side of the business lasted about one year, until George Muirson heard that he had “faint traces of art ability” and re-assigned him to work with E.W. Barnes, the hand engraver.

From Barnes, Rambo learned the difficult and now-lost art of hand-stippling. Rambo taught himself new engraving methods as they appeared and established himself as the one-man Art Department for Muirson Label Company. As the company grew, the Art Department expanded to a staff of eight, but Rambo remained the creative voice behind Muirson’s distinctive style. He held the title of Art Director until his retirement in 1966.

Upon his retirement, Rambo took up a second career as the Santa Clara Valley’s honorary “nostalgician,” creating artistic works that chronicled the anecdotal and remembered history of the Valley of Heart’s Delight. He died in 1990, having watched the Valley transform from an agricultural haven to a high-tech mecca.

Muirson Art Department

Ralph Rambo had very little formal artistic training. Fortunately, George Muirson recognized Rambo’s potential despite his lack of experience. During his years with the Muirson Label Company, Rambo was part of the emerging commercial art field, one which would eventually encompass not only graphic design, but also marketing, consumer education, and brand identification. Rambo’s designs were alternately realistic, whimsical, bold, brash, tender or lyrical – but always to the taste of the client. In the age before in-depth market surveys and branding strategies, the graphic artist’s greatest talent was perhaps simply to give the client an image they would be pleased to associate with their product.

“Nostalgician”

In his retirement, Ralph Rambo combined his artistic talent with his love of the Santa Clara Valley and its history in a new, informal career as “nostalgician.”

He said, “Facing retirement I needed something to do so I wrote a book, Looking Backward, 1900, for my granddaughters, Katherine and Ann, to show the valley at the turn of the century and the unforgettable characters who lived in it.” Mimeographed copies of Looking Backward were distributed to a small group of friends and family, who insisted that Rambo write more about the Valley and the days gone by.

His first published book, Almost Forgotten, debuted in 1964 from the Rosicrucian Press. The book recalled his boyhood days attending a one-room schoolhouse and afternoons playing in the orchards and on the dusty road called Stevens Creek. The entire work was hand lettered and illustrated with hundreds of cartoons and caricatures. Rambo called these illustrations his “pen and inklings.” Rambo also sketched historical maps of San Jose and the Santa Clara Valley. In all, he created and published a dozen books about local history.

Though much of the information in Rambo’s books is historically correct, the books are not traditional histories of the Valley. Rather, they are collections of stories, anecdotes, and memories meant to entertain and delight. Rambo’s hand-lettering is an important component of this effect. The artist asked his readers to “please let slippery nostalgia hold full sway” and called himself a “nostalgician” rather than a historian.

Muirson Workers

In the annals of the Muirson Label Company, many important names appear over the course of the company’s 60-year history. But the company’s success was dependent not only on its vice-presidents and directors. Muirson’s high standard of quality was made possible by a large crew of workers at every level, who created and produced outstanding labels. Foundry workers, pressmen, cutters, warehouse supervisors, machinists and all the other workers on the shop floor were ultimately responsible for the labels’ quality and the customers’ satisfaction.

Many employees stayed with the Muirson Label Company for twenty years or more. One was Edith Dierks, George Muirson’s bookkeeper, treasurer, pay clerk, and secretary. As the company grew, she became the office manager and supervised a staff of her own. Art Director Ralph Rambo described Miss Dierks as “industrious, loyal and trustworthy… kind and thoughtful, even affectionate and sensitive to the tearful stage.” Another long-time employee was Oscar Wildesmith, the company janitor. Wildesmith shared Ralph Rambo’s interest in the Valley’s history, and the two “spent many happy week-end hours prowling the Pioneer Section of the Oak Hill Cemetery.”

The Muirson Building Site History

From 1914 until 1970, the Muirson Label Company occupied a pleasant spot on Stockton Avenue, just across the Guadalupe River from downtown San Jose. The well-watered land had served as pasturage for the Santa Clara Mission. By the late 19th century, it was a mixed use neighborhood, with businesses, houses, and undeveloped lots. The Muirson Label Company became the area’s most notable resident as it grew into a nationwide enterprise in the mid-20th century. With the decline of the agricultural industry in the Valley, the business also declined and finally closed in 1970. At the turn of the 21st century, the area was designated as part of the downtown redevelopment plan; high-density housing replaced the Muirson Label Company’s and other buildings on the site.

Rancho El Potrero de Santa Clara

Mission Santa Clara was founded in January 1777 just west of the Guadalupe River, which provided year-round fresh water for drinking and irrigation needs. The tract of land between Mission Santa Clara and the Guadalupe River served as pasturage – or el potrero – for the mission’s herd of several thousand cattle. The potrero was also a buffer between the mission and the pueblo of San José, which was established in November 1777 on the eastern side of the Guadalupe River. The Mission’s cattle and the pueblo’s cattle mixed together in the potrero, worsening the strained relations between the mission fathers and the pueblo’s residents.

In 1844, Governor Manuel Micheltorena granted El Potrero de Santa Clara to James Alexander Forbes, as part of the Mexican government’s ongoing effort to shift lands from mission ownership to private hands. In 1856, Forbes sold 2000 acres in the potrero to Commodore Robert F. Stockton; the area then became known as the Stockton Ranch (or Rancho). Stockton, who resided in New Jersey, decided to develop a nursery on the property. He dispatched one Christopher Shelton to California, who established the nursery in 1853. In addition to strawberries, asparagus, and other fruits and vegetables, Shelton brought with him California’s first honeybees.

Mixed use on Stockton Avenue

In the latter half of the 19th century, the area known as the Stockton Ranch developed unevenly. The grand Alameda connecting San Jose with Santa Clara ran directly through the land. In the 1860’s, railroad investor Charles B. Polhemus purchased the Stockton Ranch to gain right-of-way for the long-awaited railroad link to San Francisco. Within a few years railroad lines connecting San Jose with the East Bay, Sacramento, southern California and Santa Cruz crisscrossed the area.

Portions not covered by railroad lines were sold off separately to developers, including well-known San José architect Theodore Lenzen and entrepreneur Samuel Bishop. Some entrepreneurs created grand plans for housing developments. But in the end, these investors did not pursue their projects and eventually sold the lots. A few homes were built in the late 19th century but much of the land continued to be pasturage.

In the late 19th century, one section of the former potrero was sold to F. Krohenberg, who established a brewery, later called the Fredericksburg Brewery, along The Alameda. The location had the great advantage of a spur line of the railroad running directly behind it. The Muirson Label Company would later use this line to bring in materials and take out their finished products.

Cinnabar Commons

In the 1990s, the city of San Jose embarked on a plan to revitalize the downtown core, which was a prime target for fulfillment of the General Plan’s objectives to replace underutilized light industrial buildings with high-density affordable housing. The Muirson buildings at that time housed auto repair shops, office space, and an indoor vehicle storage center. The Muirson buildings, listed as Structures of Merit on the City of San Jose Historic Resources Inventory, were razed in 2003, despite the efforts of local preservationists to save them. An affordable housing development called Cinnabar Commons was built on the site. The development featured town homes that exceeded the city’s requirement of 25 or more dwelling units per acre. By bringing more residents closer to the downtown core, the project fulfilled many of the objectives of the city’s General Plan.

Muirson Label Company

Founded in 1914 by George Muirson, the Muirson Label and Crate Company was the only label printing company in the Santa Clara Valley in the 20th century. From 1914 until its closure in 1970, the company served the needs of most of the Valley’s canneries large and small. The company’s initial success was due in no small part to the influence of its vice-president, Robert I. Bentley, Jr. and his family connections in the fruit packing industry. Over the Muirson Label Company’s history, however, it was the consistent excellence of their work that gained them local devotion and a national reputation. In addition to its Stockton Avenue facility, Muirson operated offices in Connecticut, Illinois and New York and a second printing plant in Stockton, California. The company counted as clients some of the biggest and most successful food companies in the United States. At its peak the company produced as many as 5 million labels per day and used between three and four railcar-loads of paper a week.

Like many other companies in the Santa Clara Valley, Muirson Label Company thrived by offering a service complimentary to the area’s strong agricultural economy. The company’s headquarters on Stockton Street was located not far from the bustling Del Monte Canneries, the headquarters of the Farm Machinery Corp. (FMC), and a multitude of smaller canning enterprises. And like these businesses, Muirson’s fate was intimately tied to the fate of the agricultural industry. As agriculture was replaced by high-technology enterprises in the 1960’s, Muirson’s business in the Valley slowed. The company was sold to International Paper Company in 1960, and continued operations in San Jose until 1970.

The Muirson Building

William Binder’s design of the original 1914 Muirson Building utilized the most current trends in industrial design and maximized the use of natural light. Skylights in a saw-tooth roof and industrial sash windows flooded the building with light both from above and from the side. As the company grew in the 1920s and 1930s, major additions were made to the building in a similar style and may have been designed by Binder himself.

Unfortunately, Binder’s modern design was not terribly functional and additions to the building did not improve the workspace. The saw-tooth roof allowed for wonderful natural light but also let in water. Later construction copied the original roof even in its faults. Plumbing and electrical wiring were added and changed over the years, creating what Ralph Rambo called “a metallic maze beyond human comprehension.” Entrances, exits and hallways came and went with the additions, creating a labyrinth in which visitors became hopelessly lost. Ralph Rambo also colorfully recounted the serious plumbing mishaps that plagued the building, including the toilet that flushed hot water.

The Printing Process

In the early years of the Muirson Label Company’s operation, the creation and production of full-color labels required time-consuming handwork. Improved technology gradually replaced this work in many areas, though the hand of the artist was ever-present.

The design of a label began with a discussion between the artist and the client. Once artwork was agreed upon, the artist developed a mechanical – a composite of the separate units of which the printed label would consist. The mechanical had to be executed in half-tones – created by hand-stippling or other means – and in the separate layers for printing. Full color labels require four layers of printing, one each of red, yellow, blue and black. To create a full range of colors, each layer applies a precise amount of ink in precise locations. The colors are not mixed but overlaid on one another. Each design required four printing plates, each one expressing the exact locations for one color in the design.

The engraver used the mechanical as the guide for assembling the various units in the plates. In later years, the plates would be engraved using a photo negative of the mechanical. Printing of the label proceeded from the “make-up”, the final version of the label executed by the engraver in overlays. From these overlays, the foundry produced one plate for each color. The printer then printed a proof of the label to check for typographical errors, correct colors, proper spacing or other problems. Print runs were done in a minimum of 30,000 labels, but often ran as high as 5 million. In such a high volume enterprise, mistakes were bound to happen and some even got past the proofreader. Ralph Rambo recalled one such instance, “a wartime mistake on an entire sheet of gallon labels. In large type, they all read CALIFORNIA FRIUTS! But during heat of battle, our customer accepted them.”

Label Design

The process of creating a label started with a discussion between the artist, the salesman and the client. The artist created – with watercolor or pen and ink – an initial concept for the label and artwork. These thumbnail sketches would be discussed and refined until the client and artist agreed on a design. The artist then created a “rough”, a more-complete rendering of the design in actual size, which the client and art director would approve. The artist might execute a comprehensive (or “comp”) version if the client demanded an exact rendering of the final design.

In the early days, approval of a label design came almost exclusively from the client directly – often the senior male in a family-owned business. Muirson clients typically approved a design that they found personally pleasing. Neither clients nor the art department conducted market research or probed the depths of consumer tendencies during the creative process. Rather, they relied on common sense and Ralph Rambo’s keen artistic talent to create a look that would have “reach appeal”. Muirson’s Art Department also maintained an inventory of “stock” images, especially for the most popular Valley-grown fruits. Customers could save a few dollars on the design cost by choosing one of the stock images appropriate to their product.

In later years, the Muirson Label Company increasingly worked with corporate marketing departments and marketing consultants to foster brand-identity and a unified approach to a company’s public image. Label design in the 20th century was also dramatically affected by the development of strict labeling standards by the federal government.

Food Label Requirements

The beginnings of the food label industry in the early 20th century coincided with the beginnings of the consumer protection and pure food movements. The mystery surrounding what might or might not be packed in a can, and the incidence of disease and even death, prompted public health advocates to demand informational labeling of food. The Pure Food and Drug Act, passed in 1906, created a federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s consumers, today called the Food and Drug Administration.

In the thirty years following the Food and Drug Act, regulations for accurate labeling became more and more specific. The 1913 Gould Amendment required that food package contents be “plainly and conspicuously marked on the outside of the package in terms of weight, measure, or numerical count.” But not until 1930 did the federal government require that the label include a designation of quality. The quality designations were general – standard, above standard, below standard but still consumable, below standard for the foreign market. But they at least gave shoppers some hint about what they were consuming. Detailed ingredient lists and nutritional information were not required until the 1960s. Muirson Label Company and their clients had to submit their labels to the FDA to ensure that they provided appropriate and accurate information about the product.

Muirson’s Customers

The Muirson Label Company was by and large the first choice for canning companies in the Santa Clara Valley. It was the only printer in the Valley and so offered convenient, personalized service to the small, family-owned canning companies that flourished in the early 20th century. Bisceglia Brothers Company was typical of Muirson’s local customers. Founded by four Italian immigrant brothers in Morgan Hill in1902, the company grew steadily and expanded into a new facility that was the largest cannery in the world in 1919, employing over 1000 workers.

The 1910s and 1920s witnessed an intensive consolidation of small canning and growing operations into large companies and associations capable of competing in the national market. Muirson was the exclusive printer for the Santa Clara Valley Pear Association, a growers’ cooperative. The company also printed labels for the California Packing Corporation (or CalPak, later called Del Monte), a conglomerate of several smaller canneries and cannery associations founded in 1916.

Less well-known, at least to their Valley neighbors, were Muirson’s non-agricultural clients. With offices in Illinois and New York, and customers throughout the nation, Muirson created labels for a wide variety of products. These included fish, meat, and a few “surprising believe-it-or-nots,” as Ralph Rambo called them: “labels for plain drinking water in cans (for survival kits), canned whale meat, contraceptive cartons and indoor and outdoor plant fertilizer – bluntly horse manure.”

Muirson Label Company at History San José

View a slideshow of artifacts, photographs, and documents in the History San José collection which relate to the history of the Muirson Label Company

Bibliography

Graphic Design, Packaging and Advertising

  • Davis, Alec. Package and Print: The Development of Container and Label Design. New York: C. N. Potter, c1967.
  • Heller, Steven and Seymour Chwast. Graphic Style: From Victorian to Post-Modern. New York : H.N. Abrams, 1988.
  • Jacobsen, Thomas “Pat”. Millennium Guide to Fruit Crate Labels: A Collectors Guide and Price Catalogue. Weimar, CA: Crate Expectations Publishing, 2000. See also Pat Jacobsen’s website, http://www.fruitcratelabels.com.
  • Jacobson, Yvonne. Passing Farms, Enduring Values: Californias Santa Clara Valley. Los Altos, CA: W. Kaufmann in cooperation with the California History Center, De Anza College, Cupertino, CA, c1984.
  • Purvis, Alston W. and Martijn F. Le Coultre. Graphic Design 20th Century: 1890-1990. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, c2003.

Books by Ralph Rambo

  • Adventure Valley: Pioneer Adventures in the Santa Clara Valley / written and illustrated by Ralph Rambo. Santa Clara, CA: Published by the author, 1970.
  • Almost Forgotten: cartoon pen and inklings of the old Santa Clara Valley / written, drawn and hand-lettered by F. Ralph Rambo. Santa Clara, CA: Published by the author, 1964.
  • E-day 1906: Witness to an Earthquake / written and illustrated by Ralph Rambo. San Jose, CA: Rosicrucian Press, in cooperation with the San Jose Historical Museum Association, 1987.
  • Lady of Mystery / edited by William R. Rambo, illustrations by the author. San Jose, CA: Rosicrucian Press, 1967.
  • The Little House / written and illustrated by Ralph Rambo. San Jose, CA: published by the author, 1969.
  • “Lo, the poor Indian” of the Santa Clara Valley / illustrated by the author. San Jose, CA: Lithographed by the Rosicrucian Press, 1967.
  • Looking Backward 1900. San Jose, CA: Manuscript, 1959. (Available in the California Room, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, San Jose, CA).
  • Me and Cy / written and illustrated by Ralph Rambo.San Jose, CA: Published by the author, 1966.
  • Pen and Inklings. San Jose, CA: San Jose Historical Museum Association, 1984.
  • Pioneer Blue Book of the old Santa Clara Valley. San Jose, CA: Rosicrucian Press, 1973.
  • Plant Life: A Rambling Treatise on the rearing and early culture of a common indoor plan (Muirson labellus) / by Homer Sapiens. San Jose, CA: Manuscript, 1963. (Available in the California Room, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, San Jose, CA).
  • Remember When … A Boys-Eye View of an Old Valley / written, illustrated, and hand lettered by F. Ralph Rambo. Santa Clara, CA: Published by the author, 1965.
  • Sierra Santa / illustrated and hand-lettered by the author. San Jose, CA: published by the author, lithographed by the Rosicrucian Press, 1971.
  • Trailing the California Bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, 1835-1875 / illustrated and hand-lettered text by the author. San Jose, CA: Lithographed by Rosicrucian Press, 1968.

Maps and Illustrations by Ralph Rambo

  • Arbuckle, Clyde. Santa Clara Co. Ranchos / Cartography and illustrations by Ralph Rambo. San Jose, CA: Harlan-Young Press, 1968.
  • Fox, Frances, L. Luis María Peralta and His Adobe / Sketches by Ralph Rambo. San Jose, CA: Smith-McKay Printing, 1975.
  • Map of Santa Clara County Ranchos: a delineation of Spanish-Mexican government land grants on ranchos and pueblo sites in early Santa Clara Valley. San Jose, CA: Harlan-Young Press, 1968.