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The History of Fruit Crate Labels and Can Labels

I'm going to break this into time periods and give a few observations on what was going on at the time and how fruit crate labels and canned food labels fit in, and changed with the times. Keep in mind that labels were made to be pasted on crates, not framed or collected. Their purpose was two fold, first to identify what was in the box and secondly to assign responsibility. When you put your label on a box you are putting your name and if the product in the box is good your label gets recognized as a good brand, or the opposite if you ship poor quality.

1880-1900

A number of events were coming together; the country was evolving from a local market economy to mass merchandising, rail systems were being built and color lithography was becoming more affordable. The first rail cars full of oranges were being shipped from Southern California to the East - what a treat during a cold winter's day. Labels were pasted on every fruit crate and these labels had large images of oranges and orange groves. They were like looking through a window to Sunny California. In 1893 Sunkist was organized.

With technological advances in soldered cans, canneries popped up all over the country. In order to market their products many California Canneries pooled their resources to form the California Fruit Canners Assn. in 1899. There some amazingly beautiful pre-1900 can labels around - you may want to check my can label section.

1900-1920

In 1901 California Fruit Exchange (Blue Anchor) formed. As with Sunkist these organizations not only helped market the farmers' produce, they also held much more power in negotiating contracts with the railroad and produce brokers.

During this period there were many family farms with their own label. Often these labels would show wonderful views of their orchards, home or images of their children. There was very little text. Printing a label was a sizeable cost, so to bring down the cost per unit they would have the printer do large runs, and use the labels over a few years. If there were some kind of change between harvests, for example a son wanted to become a partner and they wanted to add the sons name to the label, they would take the pile of labels to the printer and have the needed information overprinted. That is way you sometimes see these odd blackouts or changes in certain fruit crate labels.

As these family farms started marketing their product through exchanges such as California Fruit Exchange or Sunkist they either moved from their own label to that of the exchange's, or they had the exchange's logo placed on their label. This is why you sometimes find labels in two versions: one with a Sunkist logo and one without.

In 1919, the California Fruit Canners Assn. became California Packing Corporation, later to become Del Monte. You sometimes find early versions of a can label from a small cannery, then a version with California Fruit Canners and lastly California Packing. It's a fun progression to collect, not only the company changes but also you can see changes in the printing technology used at the time and you can see the evolution of the design.

1920-1940

During this period you do see a substantial change in label design. The naturalistic images from the early period were replaced with labels more geared at marketing and targeting the buyer. A good example is the Have One brand which shows a hand offering a luscious piece of fruit or Hustler brand pears showing a newspaper boy. Bigger bolder images were used such as the polar bear in Stalwart, or the boxing rabbit in Up N Atom. The health benefits of fruit were also marketed on labels.

The family farm also changed. When children would grow up they would move to the city for better opportunities, packing houses sprang up and many family farms decided to stop the ranch pack and take their produce to a packing house to be graded and packed. The packing house would use their own label, and the number of small family farm labels started declining.

Can labels made some drastic changes in design during this period of time. With the depression people were more interested in value for their money so labels started including more information about what was inside the can, nutritional values etc., this along with additional government regulations led to a less artistic label with more text.

Photo-offset lithography was developed during this period and by the later 1930's was widely used. In the past a lithograph company would hire artists to draw images used on labels, with photo-offset they could just use a picture. This also led to design changes in how labels looked.

1940-1960

This is probably the largest period as far as number of labels printed. The population was growing, photo-offset printing lowered costs and was used by most printers. A company often would continue to use an established brand name but the label design was much different. Many used a simple bold lettering with no image and a solid background.

In the 1950's corrugated cardboard boxes were introduced. All the needed information could be printed on the cardboard so there was no use for a label. By the end of the 1950's the citrus industry moved to cardboard and shortly after the apple then pear industries moved in that direction. This was not an overnight change, some packing facilities were small and could not afford the new equipment, also some buyers still preferred wood.

Can labels were still be printed as they are today, however as far as collecting the graphics are very limited.

1960 to present

Probably the biggest news from this period is zipcodes. Government regulations required zipcodes as part of the text on the label, reinforcing the identification role of labels. This was phased in over time during the late 1960-1970's. This is an important tool in dating more recent labels.

There are a few labels being used today. For the most part they are grape labels and reasons they haven't changed to cardboard vary. Wood ends are a bit sturdier for long term storage or shipping overseas.

Why are Fruit Crate Labels Still Around?

I get asked often why are these labels still around. Actually for as many labels that were printed the last 100 years there really is only a small number that survived. The bulk of what is available came from warehouse finds. This started in the 1960's when a few people started gathering labels. Usually, if a packing house is still standing or in operation they never threw out the old labels. There are a few reasons they were never thrown outů labels were inventory they had paid for and you never know when they may come in handy, working with cardboard boxes took up less room so they didn't need the area labels were stored, and lastly they were poor housekeepers.

Next to warehouse finds the major source is lithograph or printers files. Printers would keep a few of everything they did production runs of. They would take a handful, stamp the back with the current date and archive them in a sample room. When someone reordered they could pull the labels out of the archive and if any changes were made they would pencil in the changes and the artists would redesign the labels. You often see printer's files labels with date stamps and pencil marks.

Other ways labels have turned up are through people working at the plants taking a few, sales people sending labels off as samples of what brands they will be using to buyers and lithography salesman sample books. Also patent offices would often have samples

So, with a little more understanding of the history, I hope I have helped interest you in the fun and beautiful world of fruit crate label collecting. Please browse through the store categories, or use the search feature if you want to find labels with a certain theme like "cow" or "Sunkist" or "airplane".

Thank you for your interest in TheLabelMan.com!