Before produce growers and distributors started using cardboard boxes to ship their goods to market in the 1960s, fruits and vegetables were (and occasionally still are, by smaller growers) shipped in inexpensive wooden crates and adorned with beautifully crafted labels.
Growers first started using fruit and vegetable crate labels in the late 19th century. Labels were glued on the ends of wooden crates to identify the contents, place or origin, and the packer's name. Packers made an effort to display their produce with colorful and attractive labels in order to generate more business at the local market. These colorful labels were pasted onto wooden crates and shipped all over the nation for nearly 70 years. In the late 1950's labels were no longer used because pre-printed boxes replaced the older wooden crates. The leftover labels were gathered up by collectors, dealers, and old orchard owners. These unused labels make up the trading stock that exists today. And, they are getting scarce!
The label featured the brand name of the produce, along with the region where it was grown. Since the crates themselves were used as displays in stores, the labels were an important part of marketing the produce, and as such, often featured wonderful art. Today, these labels are a growing collectible selling for a variety of prices.
There were labels used all over the county. California, the largest farming region, grew fruit from lemons, oranges, melons, apples, and grapes. Oregon and Washington are known for their apples and pears. Texas and other southern regions grew a lot of vegetables. Louisiana had a lot of sweet potatoes and yams. Florida and other southern states grew a variety of citrus labels. The east coast is known for seafood, vegetable canning, and apples. The mid-western states grew a variety of fruits and vegetables, mostly canned. As you can see, labels were used all over the country, from apple labels in Yakima, Washington to citrus box labels in Florida.
Artists and Manufacturers
Sadly, little is known about the artists who produced the enticing, vividly colored images for the labels that graced fruit and produce crates. Many of the artists were German immigrants who came to cities like New York and Chicago and attended trade schools to learn commercial art skills. They would often head for California to work for large printing houses like Schmidt Litho in San Francisco or Western Lithograph in Los Angeles, just two of the hundreds of companies producing labels in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
Individual label artists were rarely, if ever, credited for their work. In fact, it's even unusual to find a printing company's identification on a label. In some instances, as with certain Western Lithograph labels, this branding is accompanied by a date indicating the month and year it was printed. A large company might employ 100 artists, who worked anonymously.
It is interesting to note that fruit crate labels from the early 20th century document many European artists' initial impressions and romantic notions of life in the United States. Perhaps, their idealized portraits of glorious fruit, colorful cowboys and Indians, rosy-cheeked children, and wholesome "pin-up girls" reflect the spirit of optimism shared by immigrant artists recently arrived in the fertile agricultural regions of California.
The Price Is Right
Prices on fruit and produce crate labels are determined by age, rarity, graphic appeal, and subject matter. Currently, high prices for rare, single labels with quality design and color from the early part of the 20th century can reach $30 to $40, while other semi-rare labels from the '30s hover around the $10 range. More common labels, some of which are available in bulk, sell for $2 to $15. Sets of assorted labels in quantities of 100 often fetch $40 to $50; however, as with any assortment offered online, it can be difficult to determine the collection's true value.
In general, labels from the '20s show signs of strong appreciation. When buying for resale, focus on labels that are in short supply, such as those used for premium produce, including Sunkist King David oranges and Airship brand navels. Premium fruits were less common than lower-grade fruit; as such, fewer labels were produced.
Images of people and cute animals are popular with collectors, including the Buckaroo and Bronco apple labels, featuring a cowboy riding in the sun. The popular "Up and Atom" carrots label, featuring a bunny rabbit, has an average market price of $6 and the Apple Kids label at $12, illustrating two kids tugging a giant apple up a hill. In the "pin-up" category, collectors value the Tex Rio tomatoes label, featuring a lovely Mexican woman, at $6 and Woo-Woo vegetables label at $8, adorned by a blond sweater girl.
Myphoto doesn't do the colors justice.Depicts 49er Miner and Rocker Box!
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