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Crate Label History

Crate labels can be tracked back to the late 1870s. When the railroads linked together the east coast with the west coast, produce could finally be reasonably shipped from California to New York. Most vegetables and fruit were shipped in plain wooden crates. It wasn't long before growers decided, in order to differentiate their product from everyone else and denote quality, they needed to label the crates. These crate labels would communicate both the freshness and uniqueness of the fruit or vegetables to the eastern buyers. With the fruit packed in tissue paper and sealed in the wooden crates, eastern buyers at the auction house could not see the fruit. The crate label became the grower's only means of advertising and painting a picture of how great his fruit was. The more lively and attractive the crate label, the better the fruit would sell.


After California growers started using crate labels it wasn't long before they were used in 43 of the states, as well as, other countries such as Japan, New Zealand, Chile, and France. Printing houses in San Francisco and Los Angeles produced most of the crate labels used in the United States. One of the first and largest printing houses was Schmidt Litho of San Francisco.


Growers would display their favorite animal, location, or even their children. You can find themes focused on cowboys and Indians, sports, classical or medieval, landscapes, and many more. Generally, crate label designs used natural themes, health benefits of eating fresh produce, or designs following the commercial art ideas of the time. Unfortunately, little is known about the artists who created these crate labels since they were not given credit for their designs. It is believed they were European immigrants who traveled from New York or Chicago to work in the large printing houses of California, producing most of the crate labels.


At the height of the crate label market, the 1930s to 1950s, the crate-art salesmen would encourage growers and distributors to print new fresh label designs for each season to improve sales of their product. The result is that you will find many different crate label designs from the same grower.


In the mid 1950s the introduction of cheap preprinted mass-produced cardboard boxes eliminated the need for wooden crates and the crate label industry all but died. Many growers disposed of their remaining crate labels, but a lot were just left, unused, in warehouses or packing sheds. These are the crate labels that are collected today and most enthusiasts will find the crate labels produced in the 1940s and 1950s.


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