Crate Labels: Marketing Tools Become American Art

Tacy CalliesCalifornia Corner, History

labelsBy Len Wilcox

The labels that citrus packinghouses formerly placed on their shipping crates have a long and colorful history. These vibrant labels — usually square, depicting a beautiful farm, pretty lady or perhaps some impossibly perfect oranges — have become art objects and unique representations of their time and place in history.

LOCATIONS OF COLLECTIONS
In Florida, that history is documented in collections of labels now residing at the University of Florida and Florida Southern College. In California, a private group has collected several thousand labels and digitized them. They are now available online in a publicly accessible database.

The Florida collection was created by Jerry Chicone Jr. Born into the citrus industry, Chicone is well known as a strong advocate for Florida citrus producers. He was a board member of Florida Citrus Mutual, the Growers Advisory Committee, the Umatilla Citrus Growers Board and Florida’s Natural Growers’ Cooperative. He was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 2009.

Chicone began collecting citrus crate labels in 1976 and is one of the founding members of the Florida Citrus Label Collectors’ Association. He co-authored “Florida Citrus Labels: An Illustrated History” (1996) and “Florida’s First Billboards: Florida Citrus Crate Labels” (2014) with Brenda Eubanks Burnette.

A smaller citrus label collection is housed at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. This collection was built by Jim Ellis, another Florida Citrus Hall of Famer who worked in the citrus growing and packing industry.

labelsJim Campos, a retired educator from Carpenteria, California, helps administer a website devoted to California citrus labels. With other avid collectors, he has digitized more than 6,000 labels that are viewable on the http://citruslabelgallery.com website. Visitors are encouraged to add to the image collection, and they share information about the going price of specific labels. One of the other administrators of the collection, Dirik von Oettingen, has published a book in German about the labels displayed on the website.

A LOOK BACK AT LABELS
The long history of crate labels begins with Florida’s shipment of citrus by Spanish settlers in the 1700s. They sent barrels packed with moss and fruit back to Spain, and north to the American colonies. Citrus wasn’t packed in boxes until the transcontinental railroad made it possible to sell California citrus back east, and that new transportation route changed everything.

Suddenly growers could box their fruit and send it to markets across the country. Access to huge new markets transformed farming from strictly a local venture to a major enterprise. When the railroad was complete, San Francisco quickly became a major business center, and factories began processing California products for eastern cities. Citrus and bottled wine had relatively good staying power for the long haul across the country, and a brisk trade began with these California mainstays.

With buyers in other states that were hundreds or thousands of miles away, new methods of sales and marketing became necessary. The personal touch was gone. Buyers chose their fruit from many different growers and packers. The label was their only clue as to the quality and value of the product inside the crate; thus, the art and science of advertising was born.

Initially for wine, German printers in San Francisco used an old-world style of printing to create high-quality, colorful labels that would identify and promote the various wines shipped east. They easily applied their skills to printing labels for the booming California citrus industry, followed quickly by a demand from Florida growers and then by producers of other fruits that could withstand the long trip to the East Coast market.

According to an article about crate labels published by the University of Florida, “Most labels were printed using a process called lithography, in which the image was first inscribed into stone. The stone was then inked and served as the printing plate.”

Bavarian limestones were imported to provide the surface (the plate) upon which the original citrus label art would be etched. Special inks were used in a time-consuming, hand process to print each label. This stone lithograph method is seldom seen today, but the citrus crate labels from the 1880s through the 1920s were created with it.

The University of Florida article says “…it was the California growers who took the lead in branding their produce for the national market place. Spurred on by the Gold Rush, the wine industry, and transportation by rail, San Francisco was a hub of marketing activity for agriculture. In the 100 years between 1872 and 1972, the city had at least 15 lithography companies engaged in printing fruit labels. Major customers included the California citrus producers. Sunkist was established as a marketing arm of the citrus industry in 1889, and the California Fruit Canners Association began in 1899.”

COLLECTION ACQUISITION
It was the labels made for Florida growers that captured Jerry Chicone’s attention, with their intense colors and strong images that reflected the society of the time. Each label is a moment of history. In an oral history recorded for the University of Florida, Chicone explained that it was the bicentennial year that motivated him to collect citrus labels.

“On PBS,” Chicone explained, “they kept having spots that said, ‘Save some history, especially paper history.’ So I knew most of the packinghouse owners. I went around to the front door and spoke to the owner who I usually knew. Told him I was starting to collect citrus labels and I’d like to get a few of theirs. They thought they had something valuable and they weren’t really too helpful in sharing those. So then I started going around to the back door and seeing the maintenance man. And I said, ‘How about some labels?’ He said, ‘Follow me.’ And so they’d take me up in the attic. I’d walk out with a great big box of labels.”

Most of the labels in the Chicone collection are from Florida growers. Many of them were printed by the Florida Growers Press of Tampa or by Schmidt Litho of San Francisco. In California, the Schmidt labels are the most commonly found today.

Chicone’s passion for crate labels is shared by others. Collectors’ clubs have formed in other parts of the country, so members can display and share their finds. In Southern California, the Citrus Label Society meets regularly and has an active and informative website (http://citruslabelsociety.com).

Citrus labels have become collectible as art. But also, they stand the test of time as a piece of Americana and a tribute to the citrus industry and the people who made it great.

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Len Wilcox

Correspondent at Large for Citrus Industry Magazine and AgNet West