Trademarks of passing time create trove of memorabilia

One way to trace the history of nearly 150 years in China is through labels – labels on clothing, food, medicine and other items that filled daily lifestyles over the decades.
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Tan Weiyun

The museum hosts a collection of more than 30 million old trademarks, posters and matchbox labels. 

ONE way to trace the history of nearly 150 years in China is through labels — labels on clothing, food, medicine and other items that filled daily lifestyles over the decades.

The Changfeng Museum of Matchbox Labels and Trademarks, recently relocated to Jinshajiang Road in Putuo District from its previous site in the old Shanghai Match Factory, hosts a collection of 30 million old trademarks, posters and matchbox labels from 1840 to the 1970s.

Its chronology starts after the First Opium War (1840-42), when foreign products with bold, bright colors and new designs flooded into China. At the same time, national industries here were beginning to adopt Western marketing strategies of branding and promotion.

One exhibit displays the wrinkled wrapping paper of the fashion brand Xie Daxiang, founded in 1912 at a time when the city’s upper class chose tailored clothing over ready-to-wear.

Xie Daxiang, located in the downtown Yuyuan Garden area, was the first fashion label to bet on the concept that lower prices could be compensated by bigger sales. Its success sent shock waves through the clothing industry.

Another famous brand was the indigo dye called Indanthrene, which hit the market in the early 1930s. Durable and colorfast, Indanthrene became synonymous with the deep blue cloth beloved by young Shanghai ladies. The cloth was frequently used to make qipao, the stylish body-hugging, one-piece dress.

The dye’s label depicted two people. One was an old man looking somewhat embarrassed in a faded blue, motley changshan, a traditional men’s garment in China. The other was a lady attired in a chic indigo qipao that fit her body to perfection.

In 1915, boycotts of Japanese goods were widespread in China after the nation was forced to accept the “Twenty-One Demands,” which acknowledged Japanese claims to special privileges in China during World War I.

In 1918, novelist Chen Diexian quit writing and set up a family business dedicated to developing national brands to replace Japanese products.

His Hu Die, or Butterfly, toothpaste was cheaper than Japanese brands and had a flavor popular with the public. It was a huge success. Chen himself designed the label, which featured a tennis racket with the slogan in its center “Unbeatable Toothpaste.”

It was a clever marketing image. “Unbeatable” is homophonic with “butterfly” in the Shanghai dialect, and the racket carried the non-too-subtle suggestion of whacking a ball that might symbolize the rising sun on the Japanese flag.

Tan Weiyun

The trademark of Hu Die toothpaste 

Old trademarks and labels on cigarettes and liquor draw a clear timeline of their use and evolution over 100 years.

For example, the cigarette brand Da Qian Men is today a household name in China, but few know that it originated from a Russian tobacco brand founded in 1902.

In 1914, that brand merged with the British & American Tobacco’s Grande Chienmen brand, which monopolized the market during the 1920s and 30s. The Japanese took over the brand when they invaded China in the late 1930s.

The old trademark of Grande Chienmen exhibited in the museum clearly shows historical traces of both British-American and Japanese. It wasn’t until 1952 that the brand was transferred to China’s state-owned tobacco company.

Tan Weiyun

The evolvement of the trademarks of Maotai liquor

Perhaps the museum’s biggest highlight is its rich collection of matchbox labels. The small spaces on the box hold fascinating canvases, ranging from political propaganda and village life, to art, animals, landscapes and folk traditions.

The exhibition includes matchbox labels of city landmarks across China, such as the Bund in Shanghai, Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, West Lake in Hangzhou and the Songhuajiang River in the northernmost province of Heilongjiang.

Before the advent of TV or radio, matchboxes were the medium of advertising, promotions, education, propaganda and announcements of celebrations. They were an ideal channel because matches were indispensable in daily life, from lighting gas stoves and lamps to smoking cigarettes.

Tan Weiyun

Matchboxes were once a primary advertising medium before the advent of TV and commercial radio. 

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An old calendar from the Cornish Match Company in the UK

The museum displays the first movie poster in China imprinted on a matchbox label. It promoted the 1931 film “Peace after Storm,” the nation’s first talkie.

Between the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the end of the “cultural revolution” in 1976, labels gradually changed from product advertisements to artwork that carried political messages.

The image of a factory worker in a helmet was designed to prod the masses to roll up their sleeves and work hard for the newly established People’s Republic.

In the early 1960s, when the country was suffering from critical food shortages, the matchbox labels were aimed at encouraging people to cope. One matchbox image showed two farmers holding up a big sweet potato, a substitute staple for rice in short supply.

During the “cultural revolution (1966-76),” quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong in big red characters dominated matchboxes. They imparted slogans such as: “Be resolute, fear no sacrifice and surmount every difficulty to win victory,” and “The people and only the people are the driving force in making world history.”

With the coming of the economic reform era and China’s opening up to the outside world in the late 1970s and 80s, science, education, infrastructure and development themes dominated matchbox art.

The matchboxes were turned into mini-classrooms that taught the public lessons such as obeying traffic rules, looking out for abnormal animal behavior that might predict earthquakes, drinking clean water, doing more physical exercise and vaccinating children.

The museum holds a collection of vintage matchbox labels from 60 other countries, including the former Soviet Union.

If you go

Address: 1325 Jinshajiang Road

Admission: free

Hours: 9:30am to 4:30pm. Closed on Mondays. Free guided tours at 10am and 2pm.

Getting there: disembark at the Zhenbei Road Station on Metro Line13

Please book in advance on WeChat’s Mini Program “长风商标海报收藏馆” 

Tan Weiyun

Different fonts of Chinese characters featured in old posters.

Tan Weiyun

The exhibition room of old posters 

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