It’s now more than 400 years since the first recorded printed labels were being produced. At that time they would have been printed on hand-made paper using relief letterpress type or images cut into wood or metal, with impression pressure applied through a wooden hand press and simple screw mechanism.
The ‘Pre-‘ History of Labels
It was a further two hundred years before much began to change. Yes, the hand presses were now being made of iron with a lever system to apply pressure, but the paper was still made by hand. However, by the early 19th century the industrial revolution was bringing significant changes to the world of printing – the first cylinder printing presses (powered by steam), the offset printing process, continuous papermaking machines.
The 1800s also brought coated paper, the halftone process, colour printing – and a whole host of new label market application requirements that were to see the early beginnings of what we now call the label industry. These new 19th century applications included automatic volume production of standard-sized glass bottles and bottle filling lines, the first canning factories, the rapid growth of pharmacy products, labels on boxes, labels on luggage, labels on cigar boxes and bands, matchbox labels and all at this time now being printed on sheet-fed offset or letterpress presses.
The first part of the 20th century saw the introduction of the first narrow-web presses for printing gummed and self-adhesive tape. The key innovations for the narrow-web printer were developments by Stan Avery that enabled self-adhesive materials to have a backing carrier and be cut to shape on the press. It was die-cutting materials on a liner that now enabled sticky labels to be produced on a roll. It was not long before press manufacturers such as Gallus, Nilpeter, and Mark Andy were producing the early dedicated roll-label letterpress and flexo presses.
Late 20th Century: emergence of self-adhesive in Europe
Later came narrow-web screen, hot-foil and combination process presses, UV-curing inks and more advanced plate-making technology. By the late 1970s self-adhesive labels had already attained a 7% share of the European label market – with all printing processes being used. Today, self-adhesive labels make up around 40% of label usage, fuelled by a whole host of technology and press innovations over the last thirty years that have enabled labels to be printed faster, on wider webs, using rotary and wrap-around tooling, servo-drive presses, and press controls that include web inspection, register control, colour management, and much more.
Unbelievably, it was not until 1978 that the first retail bar codes were being produced for the Fine Fare Supermarket’s own label products, and the very first time that a velocity code was incorporated on the film masters for the production of the dark vertical bars on the codes. Today, bar codes are an essential element of every label sold through retail outlets across Europe.
At this time bar coded labels for labelling fresh produce in store and at pre-packers was being undertaken with heat-sensitive label stocks. It was not until the 1980s that thermal direct and then thermal transfer printing of bar coded price-weigh labels using self-adhesive materials began to take place and grow rapidly by the later part of the decade.