First trademarked images in country now part of California online archive

This Levi Strauss trademark from 1881 is one of 4,000 images at the California State Archive’s online archive of trademark logos from 1861-1900.
This Levi Strauss trademark from 1881 is one of 4,000 images at the California State Archive’s online archive of trademark logos from 1861-1900. Courtesy of California State Archive

In California, the trademark became a legal concept and a work of art, too.

Between 1861 and 1900, a plethora of trademarked images that were registered with the state reflected an explosion of economic activity after the Gold Rush.

Now many of the trademarked images from that era are available online by way of a year-long digitization project overseen by the California State Archives, which have posted 4,000 images as part of the largest digital collection it has ever assembled. The images can be viewed online at the archives site: www.sos.ca.gov/archives/trademarks.

The tide of trademark applications began with the passage of legislation in 1861 allowing the trademark of bottled products and in 1863 for other products. They were the first general trademark laws in the country and predated similar federal legislation by seven years.

With the legislation arose the need for label art and the creation of more California-centric images for products. That spawned work with a painterly and figurative quality popular with commercial artists at the time. Some of the styles have been frequently copied – such as images of California landscapes commonly affixed to fruit crates at the time.

Others are more obscure images depicting Native Americans, gold miners and grizzly bears, a species common at the time but hunted into extinction by 1922. The images advertize a wide range of products made in the state – such as champagne, cigars, peaches and patent medicines.

Deputy State Archivist Rebecca Wendt said digitizing 24,000 product logos and paper label images meant working with materials that were so fragile that handling the originals proved a risk.

“What we’ve digitized really shows the explosion of the types of products that were being manufactured in California at the time,” Wendt said. “This is the same time period as the explosion of transportation, like the transcontinental railroad that allowed for products to be grown here and shipped elsewhere.”

Of special interest are the trademark images that came with cigar boxes. “We could consider cigar boxes as the social media of the day because the boxes would feature images of performers and people that would have been coming through towns, baseball teams as well,” Wendt said.

Expansion of the digitization project will depend on passage of bill AB 2674 sponsored by Secretary of State Alex Padilla, which would establish an online archives program, said Padilla spokesman Sam Mahood.

That program would allow California to catch up to states such as Texas, North Carolina and Washington in digitizing archive material and offering it online for public viewing, said Wendt. At present, accessing much of the archive online demands first working through an archivist, she said.

The state archives has about 125,000 cubic feet of paper records, but less than one-quarter of 1 percent of that total is digitized. The archive also houses 20,000 maps and architectural drawings, 250,000 photographs, 7,500 video and audio tapes, as well as hundreds of other artifacts. All of the images in the trademark collection are in the public domain.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz