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.

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Posted on: January 27, 2012

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. After a decade in commercial typesetting and design services, he chronicled the desktop-publishing revolution from his post as publisher and president of Publish magazine. With nine international editions, Publish became the leading global resource on the use of digital technology for print and Web production. Gable served on the operational boards of International Data Group's PCWorld, The Web and PC Games magazines and was earlier publisher of Sporting Times magazine. During his tenure at Ziff-Davis Gable was on the executive team responsible for major business events such as Comdex, Networld+Interop and JavaOne. As president of Seybold Seminars and publisher of The Seybold Report, Gable managed a global slate of conferences, trade shows and other graphic-arts educational products. During his leadership Seybold events featured prominent speakers such as Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, Christie Hefner, president of Playboy Enterprises, Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe Systems, and Daniel Carp, CEO of Eastman Kodak. Gable has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. His clients have included A-list brands in technology and financial services. Gable's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com. Follow Gene on Twitter

7 Comments on Scanning Around With Gene: Colorful Produce Crate Labels

  1. tweet button never works for me, i am using firefox 9.0.1 on xp sp3 if this matter
    Bojan Živković

  2. Thanks for letting us know. We’ll investigate!

    Terri Stone
    Editor in Chief, CreativePro.com

  3. When I was studying design, these were considered low-end corn… based on Lautrec & Parrish, but crude. Today, with the computer reducing the art of design to undifferentiated characterless clones, these unsophisticated graphics take us back to a time when graphics required a team of skilled craftsmen to reach the market. It even required skill to swipe ideas. Today, all it requires is CSx.
    Thanks, Gene.

  4. I love these old labels–thanks for all the info about them, too. Old labels, packaging, etc. Lots of art there.

  5. What a great collection of colorful labels. I have some of these myself, still attached to their crates. Back in the 70s these crates were the perfect size to stack and store my growing collection of LPs.

  6. Gene — I always look forward to your “Scanning Around” stuff.
    These label examples were fantastic. I’m old enough to remember seeing other examples. Thanks!
    Steve in PA

  7. I worked in a produce shop for 3 years, I always thought the artwork on the boxes were just fantastic! I think i still have a collection of box art! Thanks for posting up the photos they bring be back to when I was a kid working during the summer :)

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