By Cate Czarnecki
There are lots of things to discover within the glossy pages of Phillip Collier’s newest book, Making New Orleans: Products Past and Present, many of which have already left an indelible impression on New Orleanians. The beautifully crafted oversized book is chock full of photos and advertisements of companies both active and extinct. While the collection is filled with history, Collier is by trade a graphic designer and not full-time historian. The book reflects his innate understanding of visual design and layout, and he leaves a lot of the storytelling to the experts. The book is divided into two major sections: past and present. From there, chapters are arranged based on the product types ranging from Coffee and Chicory to Rockets and Ships. Each chapter begins with an informative essay by a notable expert. Bill Rau, of M.S. Rau antiques, lends his knowledge to that particular area, and other contributors include Arthur Smith (of the Louisiana State Museum), Peter A. Mayer, Errol Laborde and Clancy DuBos.
Many of the writers address the ritual-based relationship between New Orleans consumers and local products: the pairing of a po-boy with an ice-cold Barqs root beer; chicory-laced coffee and the daily paper. It’s natural to sentimentalize what you know, but here the affection for the brands of yesterday comes across as truly genuine and rarely saccharine. Products have a way of unconsciously weaving their way into the fabric of your life (to quote the infamous Cotton slogan). They inform place and memory, themes which are central to Collier’s work. When the Hubig’s pie factory burned down in 2012, Collier was still doing research on the book which would become Making New Orleans. That day, he went out and bought a pie and stuck it in his freezer, knowing that it would play some sort of role in the collection’s future.
Delving into the oddities of the past is one of the pleasures of Making New Orleans. A particular favorite discovery of mine was the American Frog Canning Company in the ‘Dis and Dat’ section, which sought to corner the market on the burgeoning frog industry by selling start-up frog raising kits. “The company claimed to be virtually competition-free and a great market opportunity during the global financial collapse of the Great Depression.” the featured paragraph explains. A enlarged advertisement shows a happy couple effortlessly planting their frog pond, catching frogs, and (a little too passively, in my opinion) packing live frogs into crates to be shipped back for a profit. “Our lessons will give you complete instructions.” the manual ensures. Other sections, like Press and Print, emphasize the mostly by-gone days of daily print. “During its 300-year history, New Orleans has been home to more than two dozen newspapers printed in 10 different languages – 12 were published at the same time…” Peter A. Mayer explains in the introduction, noting that if not for the Advocate, New Orleans would be the largest city in the country without a daily paper. “From 12 to one to none? Unimaginable!”
In this sense, Making New Orleans is more of a cultural atlas then anything else, a tribute to the deep ties between local consumers and the products that fill up their lives. There are plenty of companies included that we recognize today – Zatarains, Luzianne Tea, Big Shot soft drinks – and many more that time has mostly forgotten. Towards the end of the book, Collier showcases the next generation of New Orleans products, with pages on Nola Brewing Company, KREWE du Optic sunglasses, and Fleurty Girl. It makes you wonder about what a new incarnation of this book will look like in 100 years – which of today’s local brands will still be around, and which will have faded away over time. One gets the impression from the enormous variety of the items catalogued in Making New Orleans, however, that a century from now New Orleans will still be populated with objects that embody a cultural value to the people who live here and beyond. Or maybe we’ll all be back to raising frogs in our backyards.