19th Century Prints, Early 20th Century, Lithograph

Fruit Crate Labels

We have a significant collection of original fruit crate labels- advertising that has a huge collector following and represents a significant part of our agricultural past. We thought it would be fun to show them to our blog readers, as well as give you a bit of history about label design and production. The labels will soon be on our website for purchase, but you can always email us to buy one that you see on this blog, or come into the gallery to view these colorful and vibrant labels in person. Enjoy!

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 were shipped throughout the nation and the world. The construction of the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads in the late 1870 and early 1880s linked the agriculturally-rich Southern California with the rest of the continent. With the addition of a new eastern market, produce growers looked for the best ways to safely transport and expertly market their products. Wooden, rectangular boxes became the standard, as they were easy to move and handle and could be efficiently packed into railroad cars. 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.

Large paper labels, measuring about 10 x 11” each, were posted on the ends of the wooden crates. Labels became an industry-wide necessity to identify the product and company, as well as 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. 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 trends can be broken down into three periods: the mid 1880s- 1920, 1921-1934, and 1935- mid 1950s.

1880-1920: During this period, there were many family-run farms with their own label. These labels featured scenes of their orchards, home, and images of their children. Labels of this time feature very little text, allowing idyllic, bucolic scenes to dominate. Families took pride in their groves as well as in the region of Southern California, and so historical scenes of the area also appear.

During this time period, images of Indians are also very prevalent. While these tend to be very stylized interpretations of Native Americans, the scenes are nonetheless dignified and respectful. Naturalistic scenes of animals, birds, and wildlife were also very popular.

1920-1934: There is a dramatic shift from rural scenes to labels more geared at marketing and targeting the buyer. Designers took a more streamlined approach to design- increased emphasis on the product itself rather than the farm it came from. Brand names were shortened; small logos replaced complicated lines of text- all to make the buyers decisions faster and easier. Emphasis on health and well-being pervades- labels boast the benefits of eating fruit for the health, mind, and energy of the eater. For this reason, you find labels with nutritional information, as well as larger, almost mammoth sized, images of the fruit itself.  Photo-offset lithography was developed during this period, which changed the way labels looked and how much they cost.

1935-1950: Labels during this time featured designs based on commercial art school concepts. Many designers used simple bold lettering with no image and a solid background. Geometric patterns, sloping text, and block letters were directed solely towards product recognition.

In the mid 1950s, the introduction of pre-printed cardboard boxes resulted in the end of the wooden crate label business. Cardboard was not only lighter, but also more economical, and had the bonus of breaking down easier for storage and disposal. As the shift towards cardboard shipping was made, lithographic companies stopped printing paper labels. Labels collected today are the remains  from packing house storage, lithographic proofs, and warehouse finds.

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One thought on “Fruit Crate Labels

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