Many fruit crate labels contain beautiful artwork that makes these labels highly collectible, and many people have taken up this fine hobby. When discussing fruit crate labels here we are using the term to describe any fruit or produce related label designed for use on old packing crates. See some beautiful examples of fruit crate labels below:
The History of the Fruit Crate Label
Fruit crate labels originated in the 1880s. Up until the 1950s, when produce distributors first started to use pre-printed cardboard boxes instead, wooden crates with brightly colored labels glued on the ends were the primary means of transporting fresh fruit to market. Adaption of cardboard boxes was gradually as some packing facilities could not afford the new equipment it required, and for a while some buyers still preferred wood. However by 1970’s the printed cardboard box had virtually eliminated the use of the wooden crate, and therefore the use of the fruit crate label, in the fruit industry.
The history of fruit crate labels was influenced by three major trends. The first two of these trends are largely technology-driven. Both automation and printing technologies effected the use of fruit crate labels. The third trend was the movement from local fruit markets to national markets. While these trends are of course interrelated, they still had their distinct roles and effects on the history of fruit crate labels.
Lithography was invented around 1796 in Germany by an otherwise unknown Bavarian playwright, Alois Senefelder. By the 1880s improvements in lithography printing technology made it possible to use color and to increase the size of the printing base, thus expanding the use of lithography printing to commercial advertising. Out of this expanded used, fruit crate labels were also born.
The use of these labels was an early form of what modern marketing refers to as “branding”. By simply placing colorful labels at the ends of otherwise identical wooden boxes a grower was able to distinguish his produce from that of other growers, and thus create an identity for his brand in the marketplace. As the used these labels grew the competition between growers would lead to the use of more color, more vivid images and more interesting subjects. There were a wide range of subjects used on fruit crate labels including palm trees, flowers, landscapes, seaside imagery, fruits, various animals, Indians, cowboys and children. By the 1940’s even pin-up art, featuring provocatively dressed ladies in various poses, had even become a popular subject.
In the late 1800s the fruit and produce markets in the United States were beginning an evolution from local market distribution to national market distribution, better rail systems and the affordability of color lithography supported this change. Fruit and produce from the west coast became more available to eager buyers on the east coast during the winter months. This in turn lead to the beginning of fruit exchanges which consolidate the local production and distributed product over a larger geographical area. However, at this time, most fruit and produce was still grown and packed by family farms who used their own fruit crate labels.
This continued to be the case during the first decades of the twentieth century. The fruit crate labels of the family farm would often be somewhat personalized, showing views of the grower’s own orchards, home or even images of their children and text was generally not emphasized. For most family farms the printing cost for fruit crate label was a sizeable expenditure. In order to keep the cost down, on a per label basis, fruit crate labels were usually printed in very large runs, and the same labels would be used for multiple years. If however, a change was required between years, for example a son was added as partner, the change would be overprinted on any existing labels. This resulted in some interesting variations for the fruit crate label collector.
Over time, many family farms started marketing their product through exchanges. As this trend occurred many used the exchange’s label, or had the exchange’s logo added to their label. By the 1930’s, as this trend continued there was a substantial change in label design. Many of the naturalistic and personalized images from the earlier period were replaced with images designed to appeal to the retail fruit buyer. Labels began to emphasize the health benefits of eating fruit.
During the 1930’s, farming begins to move away from a family oriented business model as farm children grow up and leave the farm for better opportunities in the city. Also automation makes it cheaper for packing houses to accumulate, grade and pack the fruit than the farmer. Packing houses spring up and more and more family farms decided to stop the ranch pack and instead take their produce to a packing house. As this trend develops, the role of branding is also moved to the packing houses, who use their own fruit crate labels. As a result, the number of family farm labels started declining during this period.
Photo-offset lithography was developed by the end of the 1930’s and became widely used after the 1940s. Before the use of photo-offset lithograph, printing companies hired artists to draw the images used on fruit crate labels; however the photo-offset process allows images to be taken directly from photographs. The wide-spread use of photo-offset lithograph after the 1940s rendered these artists unnecessary and led to changes in the look of fruit crate labels. While the number of labels printed grew, reflecting both the growing population and the lower costs of the photo-offset printing, the label design changed. In many cases, lettering became more predominate and images were either excluded or reduced. In general, the artistic quality of the fruit crate labels from this period is less than that of the pre-1940 labels. This of course makes the pre-1940 fruit crate labels generally more desirable to collectors.
During the lifespan of fruit crate label use, there were literally thousands of different fruit crate label designs and millions of fruit crate labels printed. Most of these were of course used on fruit crates and a collector can occasionally find old fruit crates in antique stores. However, a better source for quality collectible fruit crate labels are the labels that never were used. Most of these are discovered in old packing houses, in salesman samples or in the collections of family growers or fruit company workers who had decided to save them long ago. Since most of these sources have already been exploited the more common way to acquire collectible fruit crate labels is from other collectors. The popularity of these beautiful works of art has also lead to the reproduction of these vintage fruit crate labels. While this is great for the average person who just wants to enjoy their beauty, it can make the collecting of authentic, vintage fruit crate labels more difficult and complex. The fruit crate label collect needs to learn how to spot the reproductions, which are sometimes passed off as the real collectibles.
Like the collecting of most vintage collectibles, collecting fruit crate labels started out randomly by people who were attracted to the beautiful art work used these labels. As fruit crate labels ceased to be used and the collectibility of these objects grew (i.e. they became more valuable) this hobby, like the hobbies of stamp and coin collecting, has also attracted professional collectors. These are people who collect for both investment and interest.
Fruit crate label collecting in its nature is also very similar to collecting record album covers. Both hobbies involve graphic art that was originally used as a marketing tool, but which over time became recognized for its artistic quality.