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Early Salmon Can Labels Reveal Clever Marketing

Columbia River salmon canneries shipped their products to national and international markets, developing dozens of brand names and competing for the most appealing labels.

The Northwest’s Columbia River salmon canneries have a long history of shipping their products to national and international markets, developing dozens of brand names and competing for the most appealing labels.

“The salmon packers were very clever in their marketing, and they started developing brand names very early on,” says Irene Martin, salmon-canning historian.

The Columbia River’s first salmon cannery was established in 1866. It was located at Eagle Cliff on the north bank and was run by the Hume family, who had canned salmon on the Sacramento River a couple of years earlier.

As Irene Martin explains:

The Sacramento River salmon canners weren’t successful in selling it in Sacramento or San Francisco, so they sold it to a wholesale grocer named William Coleman, who in turn shipped it to penal colonies in Australia. From there it found its way into other parts of the British Empire. So the packers developed brand names like Crown, Royal and Empire brand and Victoria brand.

Then they started targeting other markets. So if they were looking at markets in the Deep South, they developed Old Plantation brand and Magnolia brand and General Robert E. Lee Brand. And in California they had Golden Poppy brand, the state flower.

In time, the salmon’s type and its source grew to be important “brands” themselves. And while canneries still concocted product names like “Leader,” “Boss” and “Gladiola Brand,” the real mark of quality became the “Columbia River” and “Spring Run Chinook” on the label.

The colorful, often beautiful, lithographed labels hit their peak in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

To learn more about the history of Oregon’s salmon canning industry, tune in to the premiere of “Oregon Experience: Astoria” on February 9 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV.

salmon canning labels

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The Early Canneries

Irene Martin, a historian of the lower Columbia River salmon industry, talks about the trials and tribulations of the first canneries there. Tom Shrider, Videographer; Lisa Suinn Kallem, Editor

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