Fruit Crate Labels
by Matt Brady
Officially, 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.
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 hot collectible, and can be found all over the Internet for a variety of prices.
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 labels 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.
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.
Collecting Basics 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 on the major auction sites.
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 $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.
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.
For 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.
On 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.
Matt 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.