Tips of the Trade
Cornucopia of Crate Labels
Crate labels depict more than fruits and vegetables.
Some collectors want crate labels from their home state.
This Indian crate label was made with 16 colors.
Bright colors on crate labels entice collectors.
In the world of art and advertising collectibles, it's rare to find colorful and inviting images that are truly inexpensive. That's why crate labels—pieces of paper once glued to the end of a wooden fruit or vegetable boxes—are so appealing to modern-day collectors.
Collecting crate labels: colorful and inexpensive collectibles from America's proud agricultural heritage
"It's one of the few things you can still get without having to spend more than your lunch money," says Barbara Franchi, an ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraiser and co-owner of The Nostalgia Factory in Boston. "Each label is a small work of folk-art." The colorful labels can sell for as little as a few dollars, with only the exceptions selling for more than $50. Here's what Barbara told us about these small, bright advertisements whose roots are firmly planted in America's rural past.
History of Crate Labels
The introduction of the railroad led to the national distribution of crops in the United States. With the growth of interstate railroads in the 1860s and then the introduction of refrigerated cars in the 1880s, growers at wholesale markets used labels to distinguish their produce from that of the next farmer.
Most crate labels were produced by California or Florida growers, because that's where most of the nationally exported boxed fruit and vegetables were grown. Still, that doesn't mean you won't find crate labels representing just about every state in the union. "Louisiana had sweet-potato labels," Barbara says. "Texas had vegetables and grapefruit. Massachusetts had cranberry labels and New York had apple labels." Barbara notes, however, that you won't find crate labels for crops that were distributed nationally in bags, such as potatoes.
While the product was always edible, the labels did not always have agrarian themes. "Some of the growers used pictures of their children, their homes, their pets, historical or biblical references, or their favorite sport," Barbara notes. The variety of subjects depicted is truly remarkable: a baseball player is depicted on "Safe Hit" Texas vegetables; "Tie-it-on" pears from the Upper Yakima Valley featured a running-dog label; Mariposa Fancy Northwestern Apples shows the Mariposa butterfly.
Bright Colors, Different Sizes
Collectors are often drawn to these labels by their vibrant colors. Crate labels made in the early decades of the 20th century often used a 12- or 16-color lithographic process, which rendered them far more subtle and richly hued than the four-tone advertisements typically seen today.
"They weren't using only commercial inks, either," Barbara notes. "They all had their own ways to get their colors looking different. Secret ingredients in the inks made colors which no one has been able to duplicate today." Tobacco juice is one unusual ingredient printers used, Barbara adds. In Florida and other states, the different colors would indicate to grocers buying wholesale different grades of fruits and vegetables.
The size of a label varied with the size of the box it was printed on. Each fruit or vegetable crate had its own peculiar dimensions, which standardized their labels. The size of each label corresponded to the square size of the end of a box. For example, orange labels were typically printed 10x11 inches; lemons, 9x12 inches; grapes, 4x12 inches; and so on.
Today's enthusiasts are most likely to find labels from the 1940s and 1950s." If you find anything before the 1930s, you're doing well," Barbara notes. Manufacturers made fewer wooden crates during World War II, when wood was diverted to other purposes, and then in the post-war era, when wooden boxes gave way to cheaper cardboard ones. And as wooden crates disappeared, so too did their characteristic labels. People began collecting crate labels in the 1960s and 1970s, when many California farms gave way to California housing developments. Unused stacks of crate labels from printers and former growers found their way into the collectors market.
As with so many collectibles, the most valuable labels are the ones that are rarest and in prime condition. "If they're still on a box they're usually in bad shape, because they've probably been kicked around," Barbara says. "If you have to soak a label off a box, it looks horrible."
Labels that never found their way on to a crate end are the ones that have survived in mint condition and are worth more. Barbara points out that some images, such as sports depictions or cute children, are also more valuable than less appealing images. One of the most sought-after labels is the "Tom Cat," put out by Sunkist, featuring a black and white cat. Collectors will pay hundreds of dollars for its combination of rarity and desirability. "The rare ones are always going to be worth more," Barbara says. "But you don't have to buy the high-end ones to enjoy them."
To learn more about crate art, read the following books:
Full-Color Fruit Crate Labels, edited by Dover Publications 2001.
Old-Time Fruit Crate Labels in Full Color, edited by Carol Belanger Grafton, 1998.
Orange Crate Art, by John and Gordon Salkin, 1976.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Collectibles category:
Space "Junk": Buying, Owning, and the Law (Houston, 2006)
Is This the Real Rudolph? (Providence, 2006)
An Audience With "The King"
On Track With Railroad Ephemera
Calling All Elvis Fans! ... Got This Photo? (Memphis, 2005)
Raging for Roadmaps
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.