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PACKING LABELS: A UNIQUE LOOK INTO CALIFORNIA HISTORY
From the book
HERITAGE OF GOLD The First 100 Years of Sunkist Growers Inc. 1893-1993

When citrus growers first began to indemnify their fruit, it is said they simply stenciled their names on the heads of their wooden citrus crates. Commercial advertising soon entered the picture and an art form developed that was uniquely Southern Californian.

Late in the 19th Century, the first paper labels were attached to the citrus crates. These first labels were small circles of paper, about six inches in diameter, which were placed in the center of the stenciled design. Soon larger, rectangular labels, about 11 inches by 10 inches in size, replaced the stencil and round paper label.

In time, millions of the colorful paper labels were used by California citrus growers to identify and advertise the wooden boxes of fruit they shipped throughout the United States. The brightly colored labels became a means of distinguishing one packer's shipment from his neighbors'. They were also a mark of a grower's success.

Each packinghouse had its own brands according to the grade of the fruit. THe top grade bore its own name and the lesser grades possessed other labels. The brands were printed on colorful paper labels which were pasted on the ends of the fruit boxes. These labels had names like Blue Top, Highbrow, Hollywood, Claremont Gold, Shining Star and Warrior.

The commercial artists who created the labels not only captured the spirit of the times, but the surroundings of Southern California in their artworks. In fact, one of the most important applications of box label art was in the selling of California. It is now possible to identify many landscapes, towns and groves from their representations on the citrus labels. As a result, the labels offer a unique look into the history of California.

Three different forms evolved over the 70 year period in which citrus labels were born. From 1885 to 1920, the labels evoked scenes of naturalism. Advertising dominated the look of the labels from 1920 to 1935. And from 1935 to 1955, the labels took on a commercial art form. Throughout the 70 year era of citrus labels, it is said that over 8,000 distinct designs were developed and used on over 2 billion boxes of oranges.

As the traditional wood box made way for the pre-printed cardboard carton in the 1950s, this unique art form was phased out.

Yet citrus crate art has survived to become a highly collectible item of paper Americana. Labels which were once hauled to the dump and burned now command prices as high as several $100 each. Interestingly, other fruit and vegetable labels of the same period have not developed a following equal to that of citrus labels.

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