The Art of the Label

Ever looked at the sides of the boxes of fruit or wine in the grocery store as they're restocking the shelves? Did you notice the small stamped labels on the side? I never did—I never even gave those labels a moment's notice—until I began researching and putting together an exhibit on fruit crate labels currently on display at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum.

Fruit in labeled crates heads east, ca. 1935.

In the beginning, fruit crate labels were a way for farmers to advertise and entice customers. With the construction of the Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, and Union Railroads, goods from one coast became available on the other.

Before the 1880s, fruit crate labels were branded trademarks and images stenciled onto the side of a wooden crate. Seeing an excellent way to advertise to consumers who couldn't see their product outright, farmers began to embellish their labels using a process called stone lithography. At first, this process was exceedingly time-consuming, requiring many steps to complete. As the industry developed, new methods like Ben Day Screens and Half-Tones revolutionized the label-making process. These processes made producing new labels faster and more cost-efficient.

The labels themselves feature a variety of themes, from the Old West to pin-up models. The early years of label design were heavily influenced by a romanticized version of naturalism. The images showed consumers California as people believed and wanted it to be. Featuring pictures of flowers, birds, palm trees, and even farmers' houses, the labels did just that. Building upon these themes and transforming them to fit the times, the 1920s quickly became the heyday of the fruit crate label. These labels played upon the imagination of the consumer and depicted exotic places and even fairy tale characters.

The 1950s saw a decline in artistic label production. Farmers switched from wooden crates to cardboard boxes and paper labels were no longer used. The art of the label ended up where it began, with simple labels stenciled on the side of a box.

With this in mind, I began scavenging boxes of fruit crate labels at the Museum trying to find the most unique and the most artistic labels. What I had thought would be an easy task turned into the most difficult part of the whole endeavor. I simply could not choose which labels to put back and which to display. They were all so beautiful. Focusing on wine labels helped to narrow down the selection, but even then it proved difficult. Finally, I had to call in reinforcements to help me choose. With the hard part over, I began designing the exhibit itself using not only the labels but also lithographic plates. Adding some grapes in the case and wooden crates next to it completed the exhibit and gave it the panache the labels deserve.

Brianna Anderson is a volunteer at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. She graduated last year from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and currently studies in the graduate program of the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University.

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