The Enchanting Visuals of Portuguese Fish Tins

One night, Portuguese photographer José Manuel Ribeiro arrived home late, tired, and ravenous. “I opened the kitchen cupboard looking for some late-night lazy-man food and there they were: my friendly and colorful cans of fish,” he recalls. Portugal, with its long, winding coastline and a fishing tradition that dates back centuries, is famous worldwide for its tinned fish. Just as revered as the cans’ salty contents, however, are their beckoning exteriors: exquisitely illustrated with intricate engravings, vibrant hues, and bold fonts that come together in a unique and instantly recognizable graphic style.

A scanned label for VÉGÉ brand sardines, printed by Gráfica dos Carvalhos–Matosinhos

The idiosyncratic visual culture of Portugal’s tinned foods industry is the subject of Conservas de Portugal, an online museum featuring more than 40,000 entries including fish tin designs, labels, photographs, and more. Its collection is curated by CAN THE CAN, a restaurant in Lisbon associated with the National Association of Manufacturers of Canned Fish (ANICP).

Engraving by Sacadura Cabral and Gago Coutinho from 1923 (image provided to Conservas de Portugal by António Pinho, Setúbal)

The project started in 2012, when Victor Vicente, one of the museum’s collaborators, began investigating the local history of tinned fish and Portugal’s outsized role in its commercialization. The first company to make a preserved fish can by the Appert method — a technique discovered by French candymaker Nicolas Appert, known as the “Father of Canning” — was in Setúbal, located in the estuary of the salt- and fish-rich Sado River, in 1854. The nearby port city of Cetóbriga housed a fish-salting factory in Roman times, one of the technique’s earliest sites.

A postcard of a fish cannery in Setúbal, Portugal (Edição Batista, image provided to Conservas de Portugal by António Pinho, Setúbal)

“What started as a kind of a hobby become a digital museum,” Vicente told Hyperallergic. His team began scanning and digitizing not only tin can packaging — which make up 2,500 of the entries — but also periodicals, postcards, books, stamps, studies, and other records of the industry’s material heritage.

“We are working with hundreds of used bookstores, collectors, antique dealers, journalists, museums, and everyday something new — I mean old — comes up,” he added. “Even people who worked in the industry or have family members who owned factories send us things.”

Portuguese sardine ad by J. Martins Xavier in Separata Revista Internacional, 1937

The museum is organized into different sections or galleries, one of which is dedicated to the artists of fish tin art history. In the case of tin labels, Vicente says, it’s nearly impossible to determine a design’s author — drawings were usually made at lithography studios and the designers remained anonymous. But the artists behind fish tin advertisements are much easier to identify. Some of whom were quite famous, such as Raul de Caldevilla, who is considered a pioneer of professional advertising in Portugal. Others, like the Swiss designer Fred Kradolfer, created brightly illustrated book covers as part of the Instituto Português de Conservas de Peixe, founded in 1936 to promote the canning industry.

Cover for the cookbook Como cozinhar sardinhas portuguesas de conserva, French version, by Swiss designer Fred Kradolfer

The website receives approximately 120,000 visitors every year, including academic researchers, curious fish tin enthusiasts, and even specialized collectors. In the hopes of reaching a larger audience, CAN THE CAN is raising funds to translate the museum to English (most of the entries on the site are in Portuguese.)

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