Visiting a Pear Orchard Triggers Interest in Fruit Crate Labels, Part 1

Label for LIFE brand pears from California Historical Society collection on Flickr Commons

(Disclosures: the farm tour was a pre-conference excursion arranged by the International Food Bloggers Conference. Although I paid to go on the excursion, it is possible that California Endive or the California Pear Board provided some subsidies to reduce participants’ costs. In addition, I received a discount on the registration fee in exchange for writing three posts about my experiences at the conference.)

The second half of the farm excursion organized by the International Food Blogger Conference (IFBC) and California Pear Board was a visit to Stillwater Orchards, a pear farm in Courtland, California (the first half was California Endive Farms).

Like most July days in the area, the skies were clear and the temperature was high. The sun was almost directly overhead, but shade could be found under some of the pear trees (which are generally not very tall to simplify harvest). The conference attendees had a chance to talk with the farmers about pear growing, followed by a delicious lunch beneath a 100+ year old sycamore tree that included a salad with pear and endive, and pear crisp.

Seeing the Stillwater logo on the marketing material at the orchard (which must be many decades old), I started thinking about fruit crate labels — the labels that farmers and packers attached to their fruit crates before they were shipped to markets near and far. I had a bunch of questions:  Where did these labels come from? How long were they used? Who designed them?

For about one year I lived and worked in Ventura County and traveled along CA-126 quite often. The two ends of the highway are residential and industrial, but the middle portion around Fillmore and Piru are one of California’s citrus belts. When the trees are in bloom, the sweet fragrance of orange and lemon blossoms fills the air so that you can smell it as you drive along CA-126; after harvest (which is more or less year-round), roadside stands sell citrus at great prices, along with local honey and other crops from the valley (like avocados, pomegranates).  Living so close to citrus orchards, it made sense for me to decorate my apartment with vintage fruit crate labels — at local antique shops and a fruit stand I found three local brands: “South Mountain,” “All Year,” and “Sespe“). When I moved north to the Bay Area, the labels went into storage, so I didn’t think about them much.

I have appreciated the attractive designs and quirky brand names on fruit crate labels, but I never thought too much about them. So, in preparing this post, I checked the UC Berkeley library catalog, and of course they had books on the subject. Reading the two books I found brought me a new level of appreciation. My comments below are based on both books unless specifically noted by the author’s name, Baule or Jacobsen (the bibliographic details of each book are near the bottom of the post).

“Labels became the ‘window’ by which the product could be seen”

That quote from Jacobsen describes the purpose of fruit crate labels. At the end of the 19th century, western states were ramping up their production of fresh fruits and vegetables and the transcontinental railroad offered a way to (relatively) quickly bring the produce to points eastward, so growers & packers needed a way to signify what was in the crates. The labels didn’t have photographic representations of the fruit, but instead gave the buyer an impression of its quality, where it came from, and also served as an easy to remember brand name for future purchases. Basically, it was an exercise in branding.

There were two classes of labels, private and stock.  A private label, as its name suggests, was used by only one entity — it was designed specially for one grower and was a one of a kind design. These labels took a long time to design and could be relatively expensive. The stock label, on the other hand, was generic design showing the appropriate produce, perhaps an attractive background, and a space that would hold the producer’s name and information. These could be produced quickly and cheaply — ideal if you are just starting out or on a tight budget. According to Baule, about 8% of the approximately 5000 known labels used in Washington were stock labels. Stecher-Traung Lithograph Company’s #1043 label was the most common (see the label in its incomplete form at the Antique Label Company).

The first provable fruit crate labels appeared in 1884 on crates of citrus from the Griffin and Skelley Company of Riverside, writes Jacobsen, though some say that labels were used a few years earlier. There is evidence of widespread use by the early 1900s: Baule writes that a 1909 trade magazine has photos of fruit crates with over 90% having printed labels. For Washington apple growers, they became a necessity in late 1913 when an issue of Better Fruit stated that

All Northwestern boxed apples will be labeled on the end of the box. The reading matter will specify where they were packed, the number of apples contained in the box, the grade and the name of the variety. If you buy boxed apples with association labels, or with labels of well-known shipping concerns, you can feel assured of quality as represented. The Northwestern apples will be put in three grades, extra fancy, fancy and C grade.”

The golden age of fruit crate labels ran from roughly 1900 to 1950, with countless crates of fruit shipped around the United States and throughout the world (Other nations, of course, had a distinctive fruit crate labels. While researching this piece I ran across some stunning designs from Australia). World War II marked the start of the phase-out, as labor and resource shortages raised the price of hand-built wooden packing crates, co-operative produce groups became more prevalent (putting multiple farms under one brand name, thus reducing brand count), and a transition to pre-printed cardboard boxes.

About 2,000 California pear labels

Jacobsen estimates that California pear labels date mostly from 1918-1978, with approximately 2,000 different labels used (this count includes minor label variations for a single brand). A thorough collection would have more than 400 labels. According to his price guide (from 2000), the most valuable California pear labels are Market (Joe Green Estate, Courtland), Mt. Diablo Fruit Farm (Paul & Phillip Bancroft, Bancroft), Rio Vista (Ruble Orchard, Rio Vista), and Western Shore (Western Shore Orchard, Hood), with values of $50-75 (value set in 2000).

“Best Quality Only” from Schmidt Lithograph

Designing and printing effective labels was a team effort requiring designers, artists, skilled craftspeople, and high quality printing presses. One of the most prominent designers and printers of fruit crate labels was Schmidt Lithographic, with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other western cities. Schmidt produced the “Life” label at the top of this post (and several in the California Historical Society’s label collection: Diving Girl, Yokohl, Weaver, Victoria, Navajo, and Belt). Their building in San Francisco was destroyed in the great 1906 Earthquake and Fire; they eventually rebuilt in San Francisco, and in 1920 opened a new facility on Rincon Hill with a clock tower that was supposedly designed to be one foot taller than the tower at Ghiardelli Square (the building is now a residential complex called the Clock Tower Lofts, at 2nd Street just east of I-80).

Advertisement for Schmidt Lithograph Co. in Better Fruit, volume X, number 5, November 1915
Schmidt Lithograph Co. in Better Fruit, volume X, number 5, November 1915

The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco has much more about Schmidt Lithographic’s history. The University of California Calisphere service has tons of images and resources about Schmidt Lithographic, though most of them are covered by copyright or only viewable in person (e.g., at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, or the Riverside Public Library).

Final Notes

Through their decades of use, they are “probably the most widely circulated art form in human history,” argues Jacobsen. That might be true in terms of numbers (how many million crates were shipped between 1885 and 1950?), but in terms of exposure the case is less strong. For the most part, fruit crate labels were seen only within the food business — packers, wholesalers, grocers — and not by the general public.

Below is one of my favorite labels in the California Historical Society’s label collection, Comet, from Villa Park, California (now a 100% suburbanized part of the Los Angeles megolopolis, a few miles east of Disneyland, with the only remaining citrus in private backyards). It’s a lovely composition, glowing lemons on the right, a background of trees in front of a mountain range, an overhead comet re-drawing the eye to the lemons.

Label for COMET brand lemons from California Historical Society collection on Flickr Commons

Next time you’re in an antique shop, especially in major fruit growing areas like California or Florida, look for labels. You might find one from a place you used to live, or with your favorite animal, or a design that you’d like to see hanging on a wall in your home or office.

Part 2 in this series will look at the evolution of fruit crate labels and how these single use objects became collectibles.

Other International Food Blogger Conference Posts about the Pear Orchard Excursion


The Ultimate Fruit Label Book, written by John A. Baule, label compilation and pricing by Delmar Bice ; produced by Cora B. Marcus; published by Schiffer Publishing (Atglen, PA), 2006.

Pat Jacobsen’s Millennium Guide to Fruit Crate Labels: A Price Guide and Collector’s Reference, by Thomas P. “Pat” Jacobsen, Crate Expectations Publishing, 0-9640703-2-4, author’s web site. A tremendous resource with detailed history about the fruit growing and packing business, how labels were designed, and the fine points of collecting.  Since it was written around 2000, there is also an introduction to the internet, with explanations of how email works, what this thing called “eBay” is, and other things that we take for granted today.  (For what it’s worth, according to Jacobsen’s guide, my “South Mountain,” “All Year,” and “Sespe” labels are far down the value chain, listed at around $10 each).

Image credits
Although fruit crate label images are passed around the Internet with abandon, not all have passed into the public domain, and their creators (or current owners) may still own the copyright. Sometimes this gets a little confusing or contradictory, like the Boston Public Library’s assignment of Creative Commons licenses to labels while also stating that “rights status not evaluated.” Therefore, the labels I’m using in this post are from a source which has declared that there a “no known copyright restrictions.”

Advertisement for Schmidt Lithograph Co.
Schmidt Lithograph Co. in Better Fruit, volume X, number 12, June 1916

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.