Warren Dotz is a pop culture historian, collector, designer, and the author of eight books on advertising art. As an authority on product label art, his commentary has appeared in Advertising Age, Brandweek, Forbes, and the New York Times Magazine. He lives and works in Berkeley, California, and New York City.
ephemera: When did you become interested in writing about paper collectibles?
Dotz: As a young boy growing up in New York City, it so happened that one of my favorite paper collectibles was made to go up in smoke. I am talking about the multicolored firecracker labels that were glued to 4th of July packs of firecrackers. While my friends and I certainly had a fascination with the danger and explosiveness of fireworks, my budding design sense was also attracted to both the red glassine paper wrapping and the beautiful imagery of the firecracker labels. The day after the 4th of July my friends and I would search to salvage the gunpowder in those firecracker "duds" that hadn't exploded. I also went looking for the black and yellow Black Cat brand and the sky-blue Anchor brand labels that hadn't been blown to smithereens. Years later I would see these labels, as well as even more spectacular labels at collectible fairs and flea-markets, and decided that I would tell their story. The "firecracker" and its art and history, from its earliest inception as just bursting rods of bamboo through its historical journey from China to Hong Kong and Macau and back again to the mainland China.
ephemera: How did your interest in Firecrackers, for instance turn into a book project on the subject?
Dotz: Once I decided to write this book I was extremely fortunate to be offered a book deal and contract from the publishing house, Ten Speed Press, whose founder shared an interest in firecrackers. In fact, one day, believe it or not, he actually set off a firecracker pack on the roof their office building just as I was arriving to meet with my editor and art director. That's enthusiasm! My original plan was to write a book solely about the label art but Phil Wood wanted the definitive book on the subject including the science behind the firecracker, the holidays—there are many countries that utilize and manufacture firecrackers for their celebrations, including India, Mexico and Guatemala—and, of course, the artistic and collectible aspects of firecracker labels.
ephemera: Tell me about the Firecrackers book. What challenges or obstacles did you encounter writing it? How did you overcome those challenges?
Dotz: Well, this was the first book ever written exclusively on the subject of firecrackers so constructing an historical and manufacturing timeline was a daunting task for me and my co-author, Jack Mingo. I soon realized that amassing a "book-worthy" collection of firecracker labels might be difficult in such a short period of time. So my second stroke of luck in this project was learning about George Moyer and his wonderful collection of firecracker labels. It's one of the world's largest if not the largest. This allowed me to select for publication the most unusual, rare and beautiful labels ever designed. George became a co-author as well. I then began a two-year long process of procuring illustrations to complement the firecracker label images. These came from a host of paper ephemera including vintage postcards, stamps, magazine covers, magazine illustrations and even movie posters. Two books were conceived from our hard work: Firecrackers: The Art and History (Ten Speed Press, 2000) and its companion gift book, Firecrackers: An Eye-popping Collection of Chinese Firework Art (Ten Speed Press, 2008). The new gift book features many newly discovered and acquired labels that did not appear in the first book.
Dotz: Because firecrackers were so inexpensive to produce, competition for the export markets was fierce among manufacturers who essentially had indistinguishable products to peddle. Product packaging became a crucial component to capturing and keeping customers. Chinese firecracker labels abound with traditional imagery, including Asian dragons, phoenixes, tigers and bats. In an effort to appeal to their principal overseas market at the time—young boys and teenagers in the USA—many Chinese manufacturers appropriated all-American pop-culture motifs for their pack labels. Illustrated in the brilliant kaleidoscopic colors and style of comic books were cowboys, Indians, rocket ships, heroes, Tarzan, and King Kong—all were portrayed with a whimsical charm as seen through the unique perspective of Chinese graphic artists. One of my two favorites is the King Kong brand with inexplicable but charming red wings. I also love the Mermaid brand. Mermaids are not part of Chinese mythology but this nude China South Sea mermaid is distinctly Asian. Not surprisingly, Playboy used this label image to feature our book in an issue of their magazine.
Dotz: Well in the ensuing years I have continued my interest in discovering popular culture paper graphics that heretofore have gone relatively unappreciated for their artistic vision and graphic design. In 2007, Ten Speed Press published my book Light of India: A Conflagration of Indian Matchbox Art. This year will bring to fruition a three-year project I have been collaborating on with co-author and graphic designer, Masud Husain. It's called Ad Boy: Vintage Advertising with Character. The postwar economic boom launched a generation of charming, cheeky, and relentlessly cheerful critters and ad characters that found their way into our homes--and our hearts--in print, on television, and on packaging. More than 450 American ad characters, industry icons, and product personalities hailing from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s pack the pages of a vibrant, vintage collection of paper ephemera and other graphically designed objects. We expect Ad Boy to appeal to graphic designers, pop culture aficionados and ephemera collectors such as your readers.
ephemera: What resources do you recommend for people interested in exploring paper collectibles more in depth?
Dotz: Besides paper ephemera shows and monthly antique flea-markets, I am certainly a big believer in auction websites such as eBay. On any day one might find, for example, scores of vintage firecracker labels and pyrotechnical artifacts up for auction. Mastering the ability to use search engines within auction sites as well as general search engines like Google can help one turn up fantastic finds in unexpected places. For example, searching the words, "Macau" and "postcard" tuned up an historic vintage postcard of the Macau wharf district where firecracker exporters set up shop to ship their goods to America and Europe. It's this type of ancillary paper ephemera that adds priceless depth and substance to any collection and in my case a book about firecrackers.
ephemera: Thanks, Warren for your time. We've enjoyed hearing about your recent and upcoming book projects.
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.
Images KingKong, Mermaid, and LadyLiberty are reprinted from Firecrackers! An Eye-Popping Collection of Chinese Firework Art by Warren Dotz, Jack Mingo, and George Moyer. Copyright © 2008. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA. www.tenspeed.com.