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Tips on Building your Collection of Vintage Fruit Crate Labels
BACKGROUND OF LABEL COLLECTING

Collecting labels goes back to when they were first printed; basically they are so colorful and the art work so nice that people wanted to hold on to some. A good example is back in the 1890's an owner of a salmon canning plant wanted to design his own custom labels. He went to the lithograph companies in San Francisco , which was a major hub for printers, looked at some designs and what they had to offer. He ended up getting a couple hundred different labels (samples) of what people were using and pasted them into a couple of scrapbooks. It's an amazing collection of salmon can labels and fruit can labels which has been placed in a museum. It's not common, but there are a few early collections that were primarily put together by people in the industry.

Organized fruit crate label collecting started in the 1960's. A handful of insightful people realized the historical, artistic and monetary value of labels and began gathering up fruit crate labels whenever they could. In many cases, they were literally saving them from being thrown in the dumpster. From the 1960's-1990's collecting was generally inside the industry and generally based on location. Washington had a group of apple crate label collectors, Southern California and Florida citrus label collectors, and so on. In the 1990's the internet and ebay came along which substantially increased the exposure of labels


WHAT TO COLLECT

I get asked this a lot, and have asked myself the same question. The answer is simple, collect what you like. I was watching a segment on home decorating and the person said you should surround yourself with what makes you happy…makes sense to me.

It is good to focus on an area. For example I have a good friend who focuses on California apple crate labels, there must be around 700-800 different known ones and it's a manageable number to focus on and when assembled, it creates an amazing collection. I know others who collect fruit crate or can labels from certain states, or people who only collect labels with birds on them, or just scenic images of orchards. There are many options.

My collection is focused on images I like, crate labels and can labels from areas I've lived, also certain labels have a special meaning due to the people I have gotten them from.

PRESERVING YOUR COLLECTION

For storing a collection, I've always like books. Some people with large label collections house them in filing cabinets, but the risk of damage from handling is high. Acid free material is highly advised. They should be stored in a dry area, moisture and direct sunlight are two of the worst elements to expose crate and can labels to.

Here's a photo from a display book, also note the pages are set up on a bird theme.

 
 
GRADING LABELS

There is no standard grading guideline that dealers go by and you will find a difference between ones person's mint to another person's mint condition label. As the hobby grows I would think standard grades will become more important and variation between dealers will narrow.

As for my grades, if nothing is noted, the label is mint to very near mint condition. Very near meaning maybe a small mark from handling or very small printing flaw that is not very noticeable. All noticeable marks will be noted. A handling mark is a very light bend caused from handling the label and is not very noticeable


These are mostly spots in the printing of the label. Often a bubble would develop when the ink was being applied, the bubble would repeat itself and you get these small spots in the same location of the label.

Common Condition Issues in Fruit Crate Labels:

 
     
 
Printing flaws, spots:
These are mostly spots in the printing of the label. Often a bubble would develop when the ink was being applied, the bubble would repeat itself and you get these small spots in the same location of the label.
     
 
Machinery tear:
I've run into odd little tears on labels all in the same location. These were caused at the printer with the machinery was moving the paper from one process to the other.
     
 
Crease/bend:
I would consider a crease a fold, a very permanent mark. I would define a bend as much lighter and not as noticeable
     
 
Corner Bumps:
Basically a bend however I'm separating this since they do show up often. Most corner bumps are caused during mailing, from poor packing. The label slides around and the corner gets bumped causing a light bend.
     
 
Off Register:
Each color was applied separately and had to be lined up. Off register is when one color is not lined up correctly as you can see in the sample label below.
     
 
 
 
 
Pressure Mark:

These are caused from weight and being stored unevenly. A small pebble or even a piece of paper in a stack of labels can cause this. On the example below my guess is that a piece of paper was folded during the printing process and left in the pile of labels, over the years the pressure mark developed. Labels were kept in storage areas and often had piles of other labels or machinery or junk piled on top, often hundreds of pounds of weight for decades. Note the diagonal crease like marks, this is a very severe example.

     
 
 
     
 

String damage:

similar to a pressure mark, labels were packaged in bundles of 800 or 1000 crate labels per bundle then tied with string. The bundles were placed in cardboard boxes and stacked. The pressure from the weight caused permanent marks in the top and bottom portion of labels
     
 
 
 
SPOTTING REPRODUCTIONS

In the past it was never a big problem, however with the internet and new technology, reproductions are much more of a concern. They are often referred to as art prints or crate label art so you must be careful and 'read the fine print' when looking over a label selection. As of now ebay seems to be the largest area where reproductions show up. Some people who sell reproductions size them smaller which makes them much easier to spot. Reproductions are a problem for dealers. In the past I have been offered collections that sounded great only to find some were reproductions. Generally the collector would know the difference, but in the case of a family member inheriting a collection they would not know.

I do not deal in reproductions, labels are so abundant and reasonably priced that I see no point in it. The best way to know if you were sold a reproduction is to understand a little about how the labels were printed and dating them, which I will cover next.



DATING LABELS

First realize these were printed all over the country, from the large lithographers such as Schmidt Litho to smaller regional printers in various locations. Some lithographers were more talented than others, some had better facilities.

Fruit Crate Labels in the 1890-1910's:

An amazing period for early crate and can label art and print. Many of the larger labels from this period are nearly impossible to find, however there are some really nice canning labels out there which are still available, such as the butterfly series. Most labels from this period have a heavy varnish or near lacquer finish, the paper is extremely brittle and there will be signs of aging on the reverse. These were printed using limestone or metal (zinc or aluminum) plates. Color was controlled by either hand stippling in the early part of this period to Ben Day screens around 1900. Colors are bright and should be an easy to tell from a reproduction.

Labels in the 1910-30's

Most labels from this period have the stippled look mentioned above. During this time period photo-mechanical techniques were being developed. I have found quite a few labels from the 1930's that are photo-mechanically printed. On labels from this period look for aging on the paper, check the back of the label and you'll see discoloration on the edges, also the paper itself will not be white. You may see a shadow of the image on the back, this is from the paper being somewhat thin also often the ink was not completely dry when the label was stacked so you may find a bit of ink residue. Quite a few of the labels from this period have a varnish, but not as thick as the older labels. The varnish helped bring out the colors on the label and protects from moisture. As above, colors are bright, and vivid, labels from this period should be easy to tell from a reproduction.

Fruit Crate Labels in the 1930's - 1950's

During 1930-50's Photo-mechanical printing was being used by most printers. The colors are rich, the paper does show some age. A lighter varnish or finish was used on most labels from this period. A criteria that I use is smell, there is a certain odor, kind of musty. Colors are bright and vivid, labels form this period are a little more difficult to determine from a reproduction, you'll find differences in the print and feel of the paper, and don't forget the smell!

Labels printed after 1960

Labels printed from the 1960's to present are very difficult to tell from a reproduction. Basically labels from this period are very recent and don't show signs of age. People do still collect these more recent labels and generally the prices are very low. For labels from this period, and in general, my best advice is to buy from a reputable dealer to avoid reproductions.