Fruit Crate Labels
by Matt Brady
it's called agrilithography. Before produce growers and distributors
began to use cardboard boxes to ship their goods to market in
the 1950s, fruits and vegetables were (and occasionally still
are, by smaller growers) shipped in inexpensive wooden crates
and adorned with beautifully crafted labels.
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 hot collectible, and can be found all over the Internet
for a variety of prices.
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.
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.
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.
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 labels with an Italian theme and atmosphere.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 on the major auction sites.
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 $5. 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.
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.
a more specific sampling of prices, we talked to Paul Jarmusz
of Labelcollector.com out of Salem, Oregon. Jarmusz says images
of people and cute animals are popular with collectors, including
the Buckaroo and Bronco apple labels, featuring a cowboy riding
in the sun, which Jarmusz prices at $28 at his Web site and nine
West Coast stores. He prices the popular Up and At 'Em carrots
label, featuring a bunny rabbit, at $6 and the Apple Kids label
at $12, illustrating two kids tugging a giant apple up a hill.
In the "pin-up" category, Jarmusz prices the representative Tex
Rio tomatoes label, featuring a lovely Mexican woman, at $6 and
Woo-Woo vegetables label at $8, adorned by a blond sweater girl.
the pricier end of the scale is the super rare Tom Cat label from
a 1930s Sunkist lemon crate. This black and white cat, sitting
on a pillow or brick, can fetch up to $140. Jarmusz notes that
while this label has been reproduced, Sunkist is very protective
of its copyright and is known to prosecute forgers. Jarmusz sells
labels like this in mint condition only, packaged in archival
quality cardboard and clear plastic, with detailed information
about the label included.
Brady is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who is convinced
he's living the life of Peter Pan because he writes about toys,
games, and collectibles all day. His friends just think he's a
slacker, but are secretly jealous.