A History of Crate Labels
Since Western settlers discovered there was more wealth in oranges than in gold, the fruit-crate label has more truly represented the California dream of striking it rich than the early cries of “Eureka!”
Although the California soil may have been as rich as gold, fruit farmers needed a way to market their golden globes to East Coast buyers. To attract the eye of buyers, the fruit-crate label business was born.
In the 70 years between the 1880s and the 1950s, millions of colorful paper labels were used by America's fruit and vegetable growers to advertise their wooden boxes of fresh produce that was shipped throughout the nation and the world.
Collectors value crate art for its colorful design and its ability to trace the social and political history of American agriculture.
Beginning primarily in the southern regions of California, labels became an industrywide necessity to communicate the appeal of fresh produce to Eastern buyers. In the fast-paced setting of Eastern auction halls and commission markets, buyers could not see the fruit, which was individually packed in tissue paper and sealed in a wooden box. The brightly colored, attractively designed label soon became the growers' chief advertising device, the symbolic window from which the fruit could be judged.
In wholesale auction yards, the more vivid, powerful and attractive the illustration, the better the produce would sell. The labels included nearly every theme, especially regional and national history and scenery. Crate art included Indians, children, the Gold Rush, the old West, politics, the romantic era, war, fierce animals, beautiful women and luscious vignettes of fruits and vegetables.
The first products shipped in this way were oranges and lemons from Southern California, grapes and raisins from the Central Valley, and apples, pears, and other tree fruits from Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia. When ships and railroads installed refrigeration, and packing techniques improved, farmers began to ship such perishable produce as melons, tomatoes, lettuce and asparagus.
After California growers began using crate labels in the 1880s, the idea caught on. Labels were used in 43 states and in such countries as New Zealand, Japan, Chile, France and Tasmania.
A good label, said a 1924 edition of Blue Anchor Magazine of the California Fruit Exchange, was one that would “dignify the pack” — it must catch the buyer's attention, bringing the product to mind.
In creating brands for fresh and canned goods, lithograph houses used unusual color schemes and art styles, catchy slogans and lively designs with instinctive lettering to make each brand stand out. For example, Duckwall Brothers Inc. of Hood River featured a label with a duck standing in front of a rock wall. The idea of the image brought the brand name to mind.
Nearly all paper labels were produced by San Francisco's tremendous lithographic industry, the first labels being created by superimposing up to six, even 12, separate colors, one after the other, to form a single image.
Label design concepts can be divided into three groups. From the 1880s to the 1920s, “naturalistic” themes predominated. Labels included pictures of flowers, children, landscapes, famous landmarks and trains. A 1905 label from the Occidental Fruit Co. of Hood River/Yakima featured a nine-color stone lithograph of Mount Adams in the distance, with an articulate farm scene and acres of manicured orchards at the foot of the mountain.
From the 1920s to the 1930s, the emphasis drifted toward the benefits of health obtained by eating fresh produce. A 1910 label from Jucy Bite of Yakima featured a tubercular-looking child in ragged clothing ravishing an apple.
Finally, from the 1930s to the late 1950s, design took on the commercial art concepts of the day: bold lettering and geometric patterns were directed solely toward product recognition. For example, Magnetic of Whittier, Calif., featured a magnet that disrupts the lettering of the title “Magnetic.”
In the mid 1950s, paper labeling of wooden crates ended abruptly with the introduction of the more economical preprinted cardboard box. Large quantities of labels were discarded, but many remained unused in the basements of packing sheds and in litho house files. Collectors prefer these mint-fresh labels, without glue, tape or lacquer, but they also collect labels on wood.
Today, with the produce industry a multinational agribusiness, label art is all but extinct. This is also true of the lithographic industry that created label art. Ninety percent of these printers have closed their doors, and only one of San Francisco's original litho houses is in business today.