Claremont Citrus Fruit Crate Labels

In the mid-1880s California orange growers were shipping their fruit to markets on the East Coast via the new Southern Pacific Railway. These packers found that a wooden crate approximately 12” high, 12” wide and 25” long with a center panel to divide the crate in half worked very well.

As the California Citrus Industry grew, so did the need to attract the eye of the produce buyers in the east. At first the packers simply stamped or branded an identification mark of some sort on the end of each crate they shipped out. This would help the buyers in the eastern markets to identify where the fruit was from and who packed it. If they liked the particular packer’s quality of fruit they could reorder simply by asking for that specific brand again. This soon became a common practice with eastern buyers.

Heavy competition set in quickly and each packer began trying to create the most unique brand to catch the buyers’ attention. Sometime between 1880 and 1885 the first full color lithographed orange crate labels were developed and came into regular use. The striking graphic designs of these labels were largely the product of anonymous staff artists in each litho house. (Note: Western Lithograph Company was a primary source in this area.)

This was the era of the stone lithographers with their secret formulas and inks. Nothing was spared in the unique process which was very costly at the time and commercially standard in the late 1920s. It is unfortunate that label art, as most advertising art, is nearly always anonymous and that the individual artists are rarely recognized in the graphics industry.

Until the early 1950s wooden crates, colorful labels and individually tissue-wrapped oranges proved to be a wonderful promotional combination. The industry, however, decided that this method of shipping was getting too expensive. It was at this point that orange label production stopped, crates replaced by cardboard boxes, and an estimated 90% of the unused labels were destroyed. Although there are a few known early label collectors, the majority of people began collecting after the packers stopped using printed labels.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s labels were rediscovered in printer’s archives and in old packing sheds. These original, well-preserved memories of early California have been brought out of their hiding places for public enjoyment and appreciation. They provide the collector, decorator and discriminating gift-giver with unique examples of old-paper Americana.

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