History of Labels

The history of labels can most easily be broken up into time periods with a few observations on the evolution of fruit crate labels and canned food labels as they kept up with changes in their industries. Keep in mind that labels were made to be pasted on crates or cans, not framed or collected. Their purpose was twofold, first to identify what was in the crate or can, and secondly to assign responsibility. When a company puts its label on a container, its name represents the product in the container. A quality product represents a good brand and the opposite is true if a company ships poor quality products.


1880 until 1900

A number of events were coming together during this time. The country was evolving from a local market economy to mass merchandising, rail systems were being built and color lithography was becoming more affordable. The first rail cars full of oranges were being shipped from Southern California to the East - what a treat during a cold winter's dayIn 1893 Sunkist was organized to help market these oranges.  Labels were pasted on every fruit crate, and these labels had large images of oranges or orange groves: it was like looking through a window to Sunny California.  


With technological advances in soldered cans, canneries popped up all over the country. To market their products many California canneries pooled their resources to form the California Fruit Canners Association in 1899, later to become Del Monte.  Nationwide canneries were also popping up, wherever produce was grown.   


Can label artwork during this period would show large images of the product on one side and ornate designs representing the brand on the other.  Can labels differ from crate labels in that there are two panels: when wrapped around a can you only see half the label, compared to a full view on crate labels.  The Mt. Hamilton can label set shows the progression of design through the years along with the change in company name.  Large, ornate images became smaller, and more information was added.  The Mt. Hamilton set covers 1890s to the 1930s.  During the 1930s, a lot of brands were dropped and Del Monte brand was more widely used.


1900 until 1920

In 1901, the California Fruit Exchange (Blue Anchor) was formed. As with Sunkist, these organizations helped market the farmers' produce and held much more power in negotiating contracts with the railroad and produce brokers. 


During this period, there were many family farms with their own label. Often these labels would show wonderful views of their orchards, local landmarks or images of their children with very little text. The California Pears label, featuring an actual view of the area at that time, is a good example of this family farm label. To bring down the sizable cost per unit, family farms would have the printer run large orders, printing 10,000’s of labels, using the labels over a few years. If there were changes between harvests, such as a son becoming a partner and his name needing to be added to the label, they would take the pile of labels to the printer and have the needed information overprinted. Due to these printing habits, you may see odd blackouts on labels from this time period. 


Family farms started marketing their product through exchanges such as California Fruit Exchange or Sunkist. With this change, came changes to their labels. They either moved from their own brand to that of the exchange's or they had the exchange's logo placed on their brand. Therefore, you sometimes find labels in two versions: one with a Sunkist logo and one without. 


In 1919, the California Fruit Canners Association became California Packing Corporation, later to become Del Monte. You sometimes find early versions of a can label from a small cannery, then a version with California Fruit Canners Association and lastly California Packing. The changes in the company, the changes in the printing technology used at the time and the evolution of the design is shown in the Mt. Hamilton set above.


1960 to Present Day

The biggest news from this period was the reinforcement of identification on labels. Government regulations began requiring zip codes as part of the text on the label during the late 1960s to the 1970s. Finding a zip code on a label is an important tool in dating more recent labels.  The Bear brand shows the addition of the zip code along with a company name change. 


There are very few labels being used today, with varying reasons why they have not changed to cardboard boxes.  One of the many reasons is because wood ends are sturdier for long term storage or shipping overseas.


Why are Fruit Crate Labels Still Around?

People often ask why or how these labels can still be around. For as many labels that were printed in the last 130 years, there is only a small fraction that survived. The bulk of what is available comes from warehouse finds, where 1,000 to 10,000s of labels are found.  


In the 1960s, a few people started gathering labels. If a packing house is still standing or in operation, they generally held on to the old labels in a label room or area with boxes of labels.  A packing house shipping hundreds of thousands of boxes of produce would have a large inventory of labels since farms never knew how many boxes they would pack in a season. The Lady of the Lake bundle is an example of how the common labels were found.   


String-wrapped bundles of 1,000 labels were found in cartons containing six to eight bundles.  There are a few reasons they were never thrown out; packing houses had purchased the labels as inventory, labels took up very little room andsome packing houses/farmers were poor housekeepers. These warehouse finds are the reason many original labels are priced so affordably, often priced lower than what people charge for reproductions or color copies, called art prints. 


Next to warehouse finds, the main source of finding labels is lithograph or printers’ files. Printers would keep a few labels each time they did a production run, taking a handful, stamping the date on the back and archiving them in a sample room. When labels were reordered, the printer could pull the labels out of the archive, pencil in any changes, and hand off the project to the artists to redesign the labels. The date stamps and pencil marks allow collectors to identify printer’s files.  


Other ways labels have turned up are through plant workers taking labels home, salespeople using labels to direct business and lithography salesmen sample books. Patent offices would often have samples as well. 


So, with a little more understanding of the history, we hope to have helped interest you in the fun and beautiful world of fruit crate label collecting. Please browsethrough the store categories or use the search feature if you want to find labels with a certain theme like "children" or "Sunkist" or "airplane."  Remember, everything on the site is vintage, no reproductions or art prints. 


Thank you for your interest in TheLabelMan.com!