Gone But Not Forgotten

A history of Virginia’s canneries, in labels.

Seventy-seven-year-old Charlie Woods of Vinton “first started playing around” with vintage canning labels back in the 1980s. “I just like old stuff,” he says when asked why the labels caught his attention. What kept his attention were their intricate designs and the discoveries he made about the canneries featured on them.

Before Woods, an amateur historian, began to collect the labels—and the stories that went along with them—the history of Virginia’s rural canning industry was on the verge of being forgotten. “If not for Charlie, we wouldn’t have any understanding of this part of the Commonwealth’s agricultural and economic history,” says Bethany Worley, curator of a new exhibit of vintage cannery labels at Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute & Museum.

In the late 19th century, American cities were flourishing and in need of food for their growing populations. This growth should have signaled a boon for the nation’s farmers. But in many locations, including rural Virginia, there was no adequate infrastructure in place for growers to transport large volumes of produce to urban markets in a timely and efficient manner.

“For farmers in remote areas, earning a living off the land was a challenging, if not impossible, proposition,” says Worley. “For many, there was no feasible way to keep the farm running and get the crops to market before they spoiled.”

The food preservation process known as canning, in which fresh food is sanitized and stored in sealed containers, offered a solution—canned food can be sold at a later date and at greater distances than is otherwise feasible for fresh food.

Though the canning process dates back to the early 19th century, it was not until the early 20th century that it could be performed safely and with consistent results. Once the technique was honed, canning equipment became commercially available. Resourceful farmers across the country—and Virginia—began setting up small canning operations on their properties, often in sheds or tucked into the corners of barns.

According to Worley, these small canneries had an enormous impact on the Commonwealth’s rural communities. Many farmers processed not only their own produce but also that of nearby families. “If it was a bumper crop year, the canneries would be running 24-7 during peak growing season,” she says. This benefited the farmer who owned the canning equipment as well as all of the neighbors he served. For everyone involved, produce farming became a more viable means of earning a livelihood.

The canneries also presented a rare opportunity for rural women to help support their families financially. The facilities often were so busy that the owners had to hire outside labor to prepare the food, fill the cans and operate the machinery. Wives of neighboring farmers stepped in to help. “Working in a cannery, a woman could make enough in a season to last her family a year,” says Worley.

The canning business was soon booming across Virginia. In 1909, the National Canners Association listed 233 members in the state. By 1918, the number had more than doubled to 575. The facilities were most common along the fertile foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where tomatoes grew well, and could also be found across the countryside handling all manner of crops and even meat and seafood.

Produce can be canned in either glass jars or metal containers, and though glass offers the advantage of the product being readily identifiable and attractively presented, it is not well suited to the rigors of transport on country roads. As a result, most canners opted for processing their food in metal cans onto which paper labels were pasted to identify the contents.

In the early days of canning, little thought was given to the aesthetics of the labels. Cannery owners could purchase generic paper bands onto which they handwrote or stamped the container contents. The graphics were simple. “At best, they contained a generic image of a tomato or whatever was in the can,” says Worley.

Then, in 1919, an employee of a can manufacturer in the town of Bedford saw an opportunity. He and two associates formed a side-business called the Piedmont Label Company to produce high-quality, customized labels for the can manufacturer’s local consumer base.

Piedmont recruited skilled German artisans to create canning labels using a traditional four-stone lithography process. The firm quickly became known for its vibrant, colorful designs.

The “vignette” for each label was entirely hand-painted, including the lettering. Though stock images were sometimes incorporated, Piedmont specialized in creating unique logos and designs for each of its cannery customers.

 “These artists took great pride in what they did, and Piedmont respected and nourished their talents,” says Worley. “The firm gave them plenty of leeway and allowed them to spend up to a week designing a single label.”

The artists strove to create designs that would comfort shoppers who might be wary of purchasing industrial-looking cans of food that could not be checked for freshness or quality. In addition to images of lush produce, Piedmont labels frequently offered nostalgic scenes of rural life, such as a farmer in a field, the sun setting over a mountain or a rosy-cheeked boy carrying a basket of apples.

Piedmont found a ready market for its product, and the firm’s reach soon extended beyond the Bedford area to canneries across the state and then across the country. As the firm grew, it diversified into producing labels for a wide variety of consumer goods.

Over the years, the firm has updated its printing methods and today still operates out of its original three-story building in Bedford. It produces about 2.5 billion labels per year for clients such as Clorox, Prestone and Walmart. Since 1998, it has been owned and operated by the Smyth Companies of St. Paul, Minnesota.

The canneries that inspired Piedmont’s business did not fare as well. In the 1950s, small, rural canneries fell out of favor. As a result of advances in refrigeration and transportation, it became increasingly easy for farmers to sell their fresh produce directly to the marketplace or to large commercial canneries.  

Expanded governmental regulation of food safety also had an impact on the industry. Many small farmers were not able to take on the additional time and expense needed to comply with food processing standards and labeling requirements.

According to Worley’s research, most, if not all, of the small, private canneries in Virginia ceased operation by the early 1960s. As the people who were involved with the operations died or moved away, this small yet significant engine of Virginia economic development disappeared.

Charlie Woods, a retired plumber, does not recall exactly how he got started collecting old cannery labels. He says a friend showed him one and then he began looking for others at antique stores, flea markets and by asking around. He also spent time tracking down the canneries identified on the labels, sometimes visiting the farms where they had been located. He gradually acquired hundreds of labels as well as an understanding of their history. He enjoyed displaying them at the Blue Ridge Institute’s annual Folklife Festival, where they often drew a crowd of people who had family connections to the canneries. “We’d stand there and talk all day long, sharing stories,” he recalls.

In 2013, Woods donated his collection to the institute. Though the labels are desired collectibles, he did not want to sell them for a profit. “I wanted them to be preserved and enjoyed by the public,” he says.

Worley, who has advanced degrees in cultural geography and Appalachian studies, was brought in to research the history of the canneries and to curate an exhibit about them. She immediately recognized the labels as artifacts of an underappreciated part of Virginia history.

“These labels touch on so many aspects of our culture,” she says. “There’s the history of the region and then the beautiful art produced by talented artists who were able to make a living in rural Virginia.” Most important, though, are the stories of how these humble facilities helped preserve the rural way of life in the Commonwealth. “Thanks to canning,” she says, “Virginians were able to work and stay on their farms and sustain themselves year round.”

Piedmont was an important part of the story, and Worley was eager to include the firm’s history in the exhibit. Having heard from Woods that Smyth had a collection of Piedmont’s old labels and records, she drove to Bedford in the late spring of 2013 to track down the archive.

“I just showed up there one day and told them what I wanted,” she says.

Worley was directed to Dora Gaither of Smyth’s human resources department. Gaither, who had originally joined the firm as an artist, served as the unofficial custodian of a closet full of dusty boxes that contained old labels and other Piedmont memorabilia. She was thrilled that Worley had an interest in the materials.

Not only was Gaither willing to allow Worley access to the archive, she wondered if the museum would be interested in taking custody of it. “There was a pipe running through the closet where the archive was stored, and I was worried what would happen if there ever was a leak,” says Gaither. She also worried about what would happen after her retirement: “Future employees might not realize the significance of the materials and carelessly throw them away.”

In 2014, Smyth donated more than 10,000 labels—approximately 1,000 of which were unique designs—to the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum. The exhibit Virginia’s Forgotten Canneries: A History in Labels opened in May 2015. It features a selection of more than 300 labels from Woods’ and Piedmont’s collections along with photographs of the canneries in operation, video interviews with Piedmont artists and artifacts such as a lithographic stone used by Piedmont in its early days.

Roddy Moore, the museum’s director, is thrilled with the response the exhibit has received so far. “There is still so much to learn about these canneries, and we are using the display as a vehicle to get people talking,” he says. Several visitors have been family members of cannery owners and people who worked in the canneries. The great-granddaughter of a Franklin County canner traveled from Idaho and brought along a collection of family records, which she donated to

the museum.

Others have shared their stories. Moore was particularly moved by a conversation with the Simpson family of Floyd County: “They say that if you disturb the dirt near where their cannery once operated, you can still smell the sauerkraut.”

The exhibit is scheduled to remain on display through the summer of 2016. Plans are being made for it to travel later to other venues across the Commonwealth. For more information, go to BlueRidgeInstitute.org

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