Chapter 8: 1950s Commerce, Industry, Civic and Social Life

 “Best designs are those that interpret understanding of human nature.” —Vernon Johnson, 1956

Shellmar Products Corporation Expansion, 1951 (c) The Artist's Eye, by Janis Johnson

Vernon Johnson was one of the “Mad Men” of the 1950s, a low-key and high-values example of the Madison Avenue creatives who used advertising and marketing to bring emotional appeal to the booming consumer goods industry following World War II. The packaging industry in the 1950s developed into a $12 billion business in the U.S. by the second half of the decade. “Self-service” was the driver, and eye appeal and messaging were the designer’s tools to prompt someone to buy a particular product in a suddenly crowded market of abundant options and competition. New materials and new styling used paper, plastics, foil and fiberboard printed with inks, rather than textiles, metal and wood.

Vernon Johnson, my father, was both a creative and a pragmatist. He had the vision of an artist and the sales smarts of a results-oriented businessman. He believed that art was not passive, but that it communicated values and relationships — and thus could change people. His professional life was focused on sales — how direct and indirect messages through design would convert into point-of-purchase decisions by consumers.

Using psychology and art, he was an expert practitioner of the new world of marketing in the 1950s. And, as many films and TV shows have chronicled more recently, selling cigarettes and tobacco products was a major — though now dubiously regarded — part of their business.


Vernon Johnson was a visionary on the leading edge of a new wave of commercial design. “Today the printed message is a full-fledged salesman with many eye-arresting advantages, shouting for the consumer’s attention in the busy supermarket,” he wrote in 1956 when he had become art director of Continental Can’s Shellmar-Betner Flexible Packaging Division. In that era, along with agriculture, six major and diversified industries were humming in Mount Vernon, a community of 15,000 strategically located on both the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad 90 miles from Cleveland to the northeast and 45 miles from Columbus to the southwest.

Wise Potato Chips 1950s (c) The Artist's Eye, by Janis Johnson

Shellmar and Continental Can were progressives in their time, and Dad’s department designed on silk screen, foil, paper and other flexible materials for new product lines at Kroger, Proctor & Gamble, Beech-Nut, Keebler’s Pecan Sandies and National Biscuit Company (Nabisco). According to Bob Coe, a Continental salesman who knew Dad, the company created all the packaging for Wise Potato Chips and labels for Smucker’s in nearby Orrville, where Johnny Appleseed once sowed the fruits for cider and apple butter. (Later Continental Can was acquired by American National Can, which closed its Mount Vernon operation in the mid-1990s. Today the site is another empty field where a major industry once stood.)

“A strong, effective design…is almost synonymous with the newer packaging materials…We have recently broken through the barrier with smart, up-graded designs for paper bags,” Vernon Johnson advised his staff in 1956. “The results have been gratifying to those customers who have had the foresight to dress up their paper bags with designs that accomplish these three objectives: (1) to attract attention, (2) generate interest and (3) excite the feeling of possessing the product.”

“The treatment of the color, subject matter and layout denotes gaiety and excitement which the consumer associates with enjoyable experiences. This detonates the feeling of desire, motivating the shopper to make the purchase-impulse buying. When we are able to build this type of consideration into our package designs, we are taking the long step towards providing our customers with selling packages.”

Shellmar Products, a pre- and post-war industry innovator, was bought by Continental Can Co. in the early ’50s and later American National Can Co. Like many of the forward-thinking industries of the era, its building is long gone — but its influence on consumer lifestyles remains fully part of our 21st century culture in the packages that seize our attention in grocery store and  retail displays. Wise Chips packaging, developed by Vernon Johnson’s team, definitely lives on. In the book you’ll rediscover more of the history of commercial design and advertising in the ’50s, including the fashionable dominance of cigarette and cigar smoking….

2 Responses to Chapter 8: 1950s Commerce, Industry, Civic and Social Life

  1. EdWatts says:

    I grew up in Mount Vernon in those halcyon days, having moved into the town from a local family farm in the late 1950’s. My friends and I spent many hundreds of wonderful hours “exploring” lots of things, among which was “the Shellmar dump”, which was not too far from my house, near the Kokosing River as it entered the city limits somewhat north of West High Street. There were a lot of “really neat” things in Shellmar’s cast-offs, most of which drew gasps of amazement from our mothers coupled with near-instantaneous orders to “Get rid of that filthy junk!”

    Much later, I worked as an engineer at Rockwell International’s El Segundo, California, facility, spending my days working on the B-1 bomber, the Space Shuttle, and a lot of classified programs. I was, once again, in the area near LAX in 1999, so, I went to look at my former workplace. Like Shellmar, nothing was left; only freshly-plowed fields remained. Mr. Wolfe was right — we really can’t go home again.

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