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.
Judging a Label By Its Fruit
Early labels were designed to appeal to the senses, conveying health, freshness, vitality, and flavor. They also were made to catch a passerby's attention, glued to the short end of the crate in plain view of shoppers hurrying down the street past the neighborhood market. In short, the labels had to be eye-catching if the crate's perishable contents were to sell in time.
Some labels even were created with the regional destination of the produce in mind. For instance, California grapes had a large market among Italian neighborhoods on the East Coast, so the crates sent to these areas often featured l abels with an Italian theme and atmosphere.
The original images for the labels would be painted with watercolor on paper or linen. Collectors and dealers believe that most of the original artwork for the labels was destroyed, though examples do surface. From these originals, lithographs would be produced, either on Bavarian stone (from the 1890s to1920s) or magnesium. A few experimental samples were produced and proofed before printing and date stamped on the back with a rubber stamp and kept on file. These printer's samples now sell for between $5 and $200.
Crate labels are usually printed on a heavier quality paper. They had to hold a lot of ink to offer the brightest possible colors to attract consumers at the market. Labels also had to withstand the extreme change in temperature on refrigerated railroad cars and trucks while being shipped across the country.
Labels come in a variety of sizes, depending upon the size of the crates on which they were placed. For example, crates of apples, a relatively hardy fruit, could be stacked upon one another, resulting in crates 10 inches by 11 inches, or sometimes 10 inches by 20 inches long. Tomatoes, on the other hand, could not be stacked, resulting in a shorter, 6 inches high by 14 inches long crate, and thus smaller label.
The abrupt change to pre-printed cardboard boxes for packing fruit resulted in a surplus of unused labels. They were forgotten and abandoned in packing sheds, fruit grower's collections, and printer's files. Over many years and with much research, collectors have gathered the labels that still exist today.
Collectors always seek original labels that have never been affixed to a wooden crate. Once removed from a crate, the label is practically worthless, given the strength of the glue. All labels on the market today come from stocks of labels found at old produce farms or stockpiled by former workers--often found in quantities of thousands.
Condition is rarely a problem, given the circumstances a produce crate had to endure. Labels were printed on high-quality paper, enabling examples from the '20s and '30s to retain their luster and creamy white appearance even today.
In light of the number and diversity of labels available, it's wise to specialize if you're thinking of starting a personal collection. Many collectors initially will focus on a particular fruit, region, or label theme, such as apples, Washington State produce, or mythological images. At the moment, the supply of fruit and produce crate labels outstrips demand, making it a clear buyer's market. Superb labels from the '30s to '40s can be had for a song, with many sellers offering entire sets for new collectors.
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.
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