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Crate Expectations

Author: John Roark
Issue: April, 2018, Page 144
For more than a century, fruit box labels have captivated consumers and collectors

Cactus Pete; Desert Miracle; Sun Devil. During Arizona’s heyday as a major producer of citrus, brands such as these were shipped all over the country in crates bearing colorfully printed logos. From the late 19th century until the advent of the preprinted cardboard box in 1955, fruit crate labels enticed consumers with images of an idyllic world. In order to build brand awareness and loyalty, distributors commissioned imprints with technicolor images of luscious fruits, verdant valleys, curvaceous pinups and the Wild West. Monikers were invented that would be both descriptive and memorable.

“Everyone took pride in their label,” says Willie Itule, owner of Willie Itule Produce Inc., and an avid collector of this improbable art form. “You wanted yours to be eye-catching and unforgettable. It was all about the branding.”

To commission a design, produce distributors were visited annually by traveling representatives from lithography companies who carried portfolios of other companies’ logos. As they conversed with the client about their visions, they would jot notes and made quick reference sketches. Both the artwork and lettering were done completely by hand by illustrators who very rarely received recognition for their creations. “This was not considered a high art form at the time,” says historian and author of numerous books on fruit crate labels, Gordon T. McClelland. “The labels were done by artists who were trying to prove themselves by doing good design.”

Themes evolved with time and are often a barometer of the period in which they were created, explains McClelland. “In the 1920s, people wanted images of the good life with pretty girls and rosy-cheeked children. During World War II, military airplanes were trendy.”

McClelland believes nostalgia drives an enduring love for the ephemera, which has a devoted following and is surprisingly affordable to collect. Because labels were printed in quantities as high as 100,000 at a time, a surplus of stock is readily available for collectors. Prices per label can range from a couple of bucks up to $50 depending on how rare the piece is. With thousands of designs available, there is something for virtually every taste.

“This is its own art form. There have been exhibits of fruit crate labels in leading museums all over the world,” says McClelland. “They’re uniquely American, and they have found their own niche that almost defies classification. What sold the product then is selling the image now. The labels strike a chord with many people because they offer an escape to a simpler time.”

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