SVA MA Design Research

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Evolution of the Poison Label: From Skull and Crossbones to Mr. Yuk – SVA MA Design Research

Meg Farmer

Evolution of the Poison Label: From Skull and Crossbones to Mr. Yuk

F.M. Hopkins’ Sons apothecary bottle, found and photographed by the author
Mr. Yuk

Walk through the isles of a pharmacy today and most product labels will have icons that illustrate the integrity of the product, like the rabbit that assures us that the product is cruelty free and not tested on our furry friends. And, the icon of the three green arrows curving towards one another in a triangular motion reminds us that the material of the plastic bottle is recyclable. That is why, when I came across a brown-tinted glass bottle marked “Strychnine” with a red label shouting: “Poison!” “Caution!” I was surprised that such a toxic elixir was so readily available in drug stores around the turn of the twentieth century. It’s not your typical over-the-counter liquid these days, but for druggists like F.M. Hopkins’ Sons of Keeseville, NY, poisonous substances could be bought along with other bizarre remedies like Electric Bitters and Fountain Chocolates.1Appetizer, anyone?

My old F.M. Hopkins’ Sons apothecary bottle’s label has a single recognizable symbol that adds a quick warning to all its text: the skull and crossbones. This adheres to the laws of that time, which required visual warnings on medicine bottles that contained harmful substances. In fact, the first law that standardized this as the icon was passed here in New York in 1829.2 The image powerfully warns us at a glance that death is certain should we ingest the Strychnine inside the bottle.

The skull and crossbones icon has not always played the same role. For centuries, the skull and cross bones appeared as Christian symbol, often tossed in crucifixion paintings as a nod to the Biblical legend that the bones of Adam rested at the foot of Christ’s cross.3 In Crucifixion paintings from the Northern Renaissance, like Rogier van der Weyden’s from 1460, we see the skull and crossbones crop up again and again as symbols of our transitory life on earth. In this usage, the icon is referred to as momento mori. In Latin that means, “remember that you will die.” Noted—Thanks for the reminder Christian Art.

When the skull and crossbones image began to be added to drug containers that held life-threatening poison in the mid nineteenth century, the icon of death seamed most appropriate. People had become accustomed to its meaning. In order to protect we the people, the American Pharmaceutical Association adopted a resolution in 1853, that “all packages or bottles [of poisonous substances] shall be distinctly labeled with the word ‘poison’ or with a death’s head symbol, conspicuously printed.”4

Other developments occurred shortly after this, which are reflected in the F.M. Hopkins’ Sons bottle. At an annual meeting of the American Pharmaceutical Association in 1857, pharmacists were urged to write on all dispensing labels the word “Poison” in red ink. William Haedrich of New York City was first label designer to offer the red poison labels as advertised in the Druggist Circular of 1868.5 This is why the label on the Strychnine bottle is red—the laws had kicked in by that point. But, there is another addition worth note: an antidote. By 1872, laws added that an antidote be provided for safety.6 On the Strychnine bottle the cure for ingestion is “Produce vomiting by giving ground Mustard or Sulfate of Zinc in warm water; afterwards, Bromide of Potassium. Patient to be kept quiet.” And that’s the story of how the American Medical Association handled poisonous substances.

Strikingly, the skull and crossbones ideogram was did not always suffice as a foolproof message. The design of the bottle itself began to take on grim shapes, like that of bones or coffins in the 1890s.7 The shapes became powerful recognition tools for danger. I suspect these poison bottles, more than any early perfume bottle shapes such as hearts, have influenced contemporary fragrance bottle design in terms of the power of recognition. It has reached levels of silliness when we look at scents like Pink Friday by Nicki Manaj. A bottle modeled after the artist with her signature pink wig for a lid. But that’s a powerful tool. There is no mistaking the shape for another pop princess.

Let’s turn our attention to another realm where the skull and crossbones image surfaces: the high seas. Here’s where it gets more interesting. We’ve seen the icon as a momento mori, and as symbol for poison. But, in the lawless ocean frontier, pirates adopted the image for their “Jolly Roger” flag in the eighteenth century.8 This development cause contention with the Catholic Church, who forbade use of the symbol going forward, so as not to be associated with such miscreants as Pirates.

While some turned their backs on pirates, some embraced them and their imagery. Enter the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club. Formed in 1882, the “Buccos” (that’s short for Buccaneers) cuddled up to the lore of such an intimidating mascot. And so, with that the skull and crossbones became a hallmark images for this sports team. We see it in Pittsburgh Pirates baseball paraphernalia from the 1960s, an especially exciting era following the Buccos’ win of the World Series pennant in 1960. It is the only time in Baseball history that a Game 7 of the World Series has ever ended with a home run.9 Programs from the ballgames seemed to be especially tilted to the younger crowd, and the covers often appeared as cartoons representing the dastardly doings of pirates dressed in baseball uniforms. Fans were simply head over heels for their ball club and championed the icons that came with it.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the story of the skull and crossbones takes a surprising turn, and it happens ironically at the corner of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ old Three Rivers Stadium.” In the early 1970s, children in Pittsburgh appeared to be inadvertently ingesting poison at a higher rate than the national average. Some health officials surmised that this tragedy was occurring, at least in part, because of the confusion caused by the Pittsburgh Pirates logo, part of which contained the skull and crossbones.”10 What was a universal symbol for poison for most became a symbol for adventure to children living in Pittsburgh. Something had to be done.

In 1971, Mr. Yuk was introduced to the world. He is Day-Glo green and sports a face that meanly scrunches up in nausea and disgust at all things putrid and poisonous. He was developed by Dr. Richard Moriarty along with his team that included Dick Garber from the advertising firm Vic Maitland and Associates. They worked towards a logo that would have no sports associations that would grab children’s attention and send the right message.11 Simply, Mr. Yuk means no. He’s sort of the ugly cousin of the Happy Face mixed with some latent qualities of the Jolly Roger. These conflicting entities, however incompatible, came straight from the source: kids. “After testing eight colors, the kids chose a fluorescent green—back then it was known as “Day-Glo.” One of the kids looking at the face in that color said, ‘He looks yucky.’”12 And so Dr. Moriarty called him Mr. Yuk.

While Mr. Yuk grew out of Pittsburgh’s unique need to replace the Pittsburgh Pirates logo, he has become the national pop-culture icon for poison warning despite other poison centers developing other logos. Mr. Yuk’s rivals included Officer Ugg, Pinkie the Elephant, No Soip the Snake (yep, that’s poison spelled backwards), Fireman Red, and maybe the best name yet: Uncle Barf.13 But Mr. Yuk became the celebrity and lives on. And his meaning has grown too. He is a visual reminder about prevention and he displays important information about who to call if an accident involving poison occurs.

Sadly, despite his educational campaign for over forty years and the countless lives he has saved, Mr. Yuk is not the official national symbol for poison warnings. In 2001, the battle of poison icons ended as the American Association of Poison Control Center (AAPCC) voted seven-to-five not to use Mr. Yuk. Instead they chose something that looks close to my Strychnine bottle: “a pill bottle with a back-to-the-future Jolly Roger.”14

10,830 calls are made to Poison Centers each day in America. But you won’t see Mr. Yuk when you visit the AAPCC’s website. You’ll see a generic and regressive logo that puts us back at square one.

Should we be alarmed that the poison alarm has backslided? Definitely. The Pittsburgh Pirates are still a baseball team. But a scarier fact is that the skull and crossbones icon is becoming cooler. Meaning that in addition to the baseball imagery of the Pittsburgh Pirates, kids have been introduced to other sources where the skull and crossbones icon has morphed into cartoony brand logos like Paul Frank’s Scurvy character and Johnny Cupcakes’ logo, a cupcake with two crossbones below it. The adaptability of the skull and crossbones is remarkable in that it has three components that can easily be swapped out for other similarly shaped items. And the shapes, a round oval and two crossed lines, have infinite possibilities. The skull becomes a cupcake for Johnny Cupcakes. The crossbones become a pencil and paintbrush for the Vigon Seireeni logo design.

This icon has had an incredible journey, not unlike the swastika. At times it’s menacing, and other times cool, and still other times its benign. The skull and crossbones image is unique in its malleability, but also as a symbol that became a danger to itself at one point because of its multiple and conflicting meanings. Danger is in the eye of the beholder, and as an icon should translate as such to the group most likely to let their curiosity and illogical impulses get the better of them: kids.

  1. The Druggists’ Circular and Chemical Gazette, Volume 43, February 1898, P.61
  2. Griffenhagen and Bogard. History of Drug Containers and Their Labels. The American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. 1999. P. 92
  3. George Ferguson. Signs & Symbols in Christian Art. Oxford University Press. 1954. P. 50
  4. Griffenhagen and Bogard. History of Drug Containers and Their Labels. The American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. 1999. P. 92
  5. Griffenhagen and Bogard. History of Drug Containers and Their Labels. The American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. 1999. P. 92
  6. Griffenhagen and Bogard. P. 93
  7. Griffenhagen and Bogard. P. 93
  8. Angus Konstam, The History of Pirates. Lyons Press. 1999. P.98-101
  9. Ken Burns. Baseball. The Baseball Film Project, Inc. 1994
  10. McCarrick and Ziaukas. Still Scary After All These Years: Mr. Yuk Nears 40. Western Pensylvania History. Fall 2009. P. 20
  11. McCarrick and Ziaukas. Still Scary After All These Years: Mr. Yuk Nears 40. Western Pensylvania History. Fall 2009. P. 20
  12. McCarrick and Ziaukas. Still Scary After All These Years: Mr. Yuk Nears 40. Western Pensylvania History. Fall 2009. P. 20
  13. McCarrick and Ziaukas. Still Scary After All These Years: Mr. Yuk Nears 40. Western Pensylvania History. Fall 2009. P. 20
  14. McCarrick and Ziaukas. Still Scary After All These Years: Mr. Yuk Nears 40. Western Pensylvania History. Fall 2009. P. 20