Orange crates were anything but ordinary

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

Driver Fenlon Mathews atop his wagonload of crates at the Tustin Packing House. Crates with the name of the packing house stenciled on gave way to colorful labels.

As a child I had no idea that the oranges from our orchard eventually traveled to market in wooden crates with colorful labels. The field boxes that were unloaded in our orchard the day before the pickers arrived were the only boxes I ever saw. Stenciled with the name of the packing house, these heavy wooden boxes took a lot of abuse.

When Orange growers, such as Dr. William Burgess Wall, who packed and shipped their own fruit in the early years found the baskets and barrels customarily used to ship fruit were unsatisfactory for sending oranges east by railroad car, they developed a lightweight wooden orange crate for marketing.

Manufactured in a rectangular shape, 12 x 12 x 27 inches, with a slatted lid, this box was durable and attractive as well as easy to handle and load quickly into a railroad car. Wooden crates were used from the late 1800s until the 1950s when they were replaced by cardboard boxes.

In the beginning the name of the packing house and the grade of the orange packed inside was stenciled on each crate. Although this identification was sufficient, it was not especially attractive and had little appeal for the wholesalers who bought the oranges.

As a result a colorful 10 x11 inch label was designed to attract attention and promote the product. Designed by commercial artists, most of these labels were produced in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Gordon T. McClellan and Jay T. Last, authors of “California Orange Box Labels,” estimate that there were 8,000 label designs at the peak of the orange industry in California. With adaptations this resulted in 15,000 labels. The label designs changed over the yeas.

From 1880 until after World War I labels featured flowers, birds, animals and scenic views with a few historic themes. By 1920 the labels switched to stressing the health benefits of oranges and orange juice. From 1930 until the mid-1950s when the cardboard carton came into use, label designs used more lettering and geometric shapes than illustrations.

Label production ended abruptly in 1955 when the rising cost of wood forced packing houses to switch to cardboard cartons for shipping. Simple designs were printed on the box ends, ending the need for the colorful labels. Thousands of unused labels were thrown out or stashed in basements of the packinghouses.

Stone lithography was used to produce the early labels. Later photo composition and offset printing came into use. Surprisingly, few artists signed their designs. Probably no one ever thought that in later years orange crate label collecting would become popular.

Because it is virtually impossible to remove a label from an old crate, labels from the early years are rare, but there are many unused labels available at nominal cost. Collectors trade and sell their labels or buy from shops or on the internet. A number of books have been written on the subject. Prices range from low to high, depending upon supply and demand.

Strangely, orange crate labels are collected for the role they played in the history of advertising, rather than their contribution to the citrus industry.


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