For more than 40 years, Gloucester resident Betty Davis had wondered what to do with her wedding dress. She has two adult daughters, and wanted to somehow pass the dress on to both of them. Then it finally hit her. She bought some fancy throw pillows and found a local seamstress who would upholster them with the fabric from her dress.
"And they were beautiful," said Davis. "And [then] I turned them over and there was that 6-by-4 inch tag, you know, that you could see through the satin fabric of my wedding dress."
Not just any tag. Perhaps history’s most infamous tag. Ubiquitous on pillows and mattresses and maligned for generations: "Under Penalty of Law, Do Not Remove."
Davis recounted to me what the seamstress said when asked to do exactly that, and remove them.
"She said, 'oh, no, no, no, I can’t t do that'," said Davis. "'I would be arrested. It says that I would be a criminal if I did that.'"
The seamstress eventually relented and removed the tags — but only under Davis’ supervision. The whole affair got Davis curious.
"Why did those appear? When did they appear? How come it’s not on any clothing you wear?" asked Davis. "It’s [only] on mattresses and pillows."
For answers, I turned to Maggie Terry, president of Legal Label, an organization that helps manufacturers get those "Do Not Remove" labels correct. As she explained, at the turn of the 20th Century, the mattress making industry was in its "wild, wild west " phase.
"I mean ... years ago they threw anything they wanted into the bedding," said Terry. "Newspapers, dirty rags, sweepings off the floor, part of their lunches, droppings, anything," — not to mention horsehair, chopped up old hospital or hotel mattress innards, and corn husks.
As you might imagine, with fill like this, bacteria and vermin found a cozy home inside. Not only did this become a growing public health issue, it also started to irk manufacturers who were doing things on the up-and-up — and being undercut on price.
"Really, law labeling was started by industry to protect industry," explained Terry.
By the 1910's, manufacturers were partnering with government at the city and state level to put some rules in place. Unlike — say — a shirt or a pair of pants, you can’t see or touch the material inside a mattress or a pillow. And so, laws began to be passed requiring manufacturers to list all of the ingredients hidden inside. It is this label — known today as a law label — that cannot be removed.
"In the U.S., there are 31 states that have law labeling requirements," said Terry.
They used to vary in their wording, leading to confusion and unwittingly instilling panic in consumers. Today the labels are essentially uniform and clarify what has always been the case: It is the manufacturers and sellers who cannot remove the label.
"A consumer can remove the label," said Terry. "If you read that correctly it says, 'except by the consumer.'"
Today, 13 states — including Massachusetts — actively enforce the requirements. Here in the Bay State, that means manufacturers and distributors must be licensed annually, and provide a template of their "Do Not Remove" label each year to ensure compliance.
And lest you think the idea of unscrupulous manufacturers are a thing of the distant past, or that the “Under Penalty of Law” bit on that label is an idle threat, meet Michelle Jack.
"Whenever we have to meet someone new and do a little education, one of my favorite lines to tell them is, “Unlike the tooth fairy, I am real,” she joked.
Jack is essentially the law on this matter as the manager of the bedding, upholstered furniture and quilted clothing program for the Department of Agriculture in Utah, which has one of the country’s most robust law label enforcement programs. She’s also been an inspector there — going store to store looking for products with dubious labeling
"We take suspect products and we will send them to a lab for testing," said Jack.
Jack says in the lab, they’ve found pillows billed as hypoallergenic, but actually stuffed with unclean duck feathers; supposed down jackets filled only with poly-fibers; and — yes — misleading mattress labels.
"There are a lot of very good manufacturers out there," said Jack. "But there are a few that try to take advantage of the whole system and sell you a product that is less than it purports to be."
The penalty is usually just a fine — not jail time. But, consumers (and seamstresses), rip away! Though, do check the fine print first. While removing the label might not ensnare you in the long arm of the law it could render your warranty invalid.
My thanks to Gloucester's Betty Davis for her eyes that spotted the question that led to today’s story. What’s yours? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.