Scanning Around With Gene: Colorful Produce Crate Labels
When railroads became a dominant form of transportation, and especially after the completion of the trans-continental railway in 1869, it was possible for farmers to ship their goods great distances. And with the advent of the refrigerated rail car, the concept of nearly year-round availability of produce became a reality.
Fruits and vegetables were shipped and displayed in wooden boxes in those days, so as a way to distinguish items from various regions and to establish recognizable brands, growers adhered colorful labels to the sides of the crates. This helped both consumers and wholesale distributors in big cities judge quality, and the labels tended to depict classic (and often romantic) American scenes, regional landmarks, and sometimes even the children of growers. Click on any image for a larger version.
In the late 1800s, color printing of this style was still mostly done by stone lithography, and many of these labels were printed with eight or more colors. The art was typically designed by in-house artists at the lithographic companies, and most are uncredited.
The earliest labels often came from California. Many were printed by the big lithographers in San Francisco and, to a lesser extent, Los Angles. In those days, many printers were German immigrants who brought significant craft skills with them from the “old” country. Lithography was a complex and difficult process that required a high degree of skill.
These label designs frequently projected a romanticized version of the region. The goal was to convey the idea of freshness, so many show rosy-cheeked individuals or fanciful animals. They seem corny by today’s standards, but I love them.
In the beginning, produce crate labels came from individual farms and so there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of designs. But as commerce changed, larger farming co-ops formed and brands consolidated, or at least displayed a common element, such as the “Sunkist” brand.
Labels needed to be eye-catching to compete for mind share in the busy produce markets of big cities, so bold, expressive graphics (including lots of three-dimensional type) were the norm.
By the 1940s printing technology had changed, making it easier to use photographs and original illustrations, so label designs reflected the new technology. But they still were bright and colorful.
Wooden crates remained in use until the 1950s, when cardboard boxes were introduced. Because these could be manufactured with brand information printed directly on the cardboard, classic paste-on labels started fading from the scene.
Much of the unused stock was kept by farms and packing houses and rediscovered in the last several decades, so these labels are still in circulation among collectors today. Printers also held on to quantities, and those have made it into the collector’s market.
It’s a shame so little is known about the artists who designed and illustrated these bits of Americana. They represent a wonderful time in the growth of the country and reflect the craftsmanship of printing technology.
In recent times, some produce brands have returned to a more colorful look, though disposable cardboard boxes will never have the elegance of those old wooden crates and their attached full-size labels.