Monday, February 29, 2016

Orange County citrus crate labels

Crate label of Charles C. Chapman of Fullerton, who popularized the Valencia orange. (Image courtesy Orange County Archives)
The Orange County Archives just opened a small exhibit about local orange crate labels on the first floor of the Old Orange County Courthouse, 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., in Santa Ana. This was made possible by the recent donation to the Archives of hundreds of Orange County fruit crate label images by collector Tom Pulley.

For over half a century, the citrus industry –led by the Valencia orange – drove the economy of Orange County and covered our landscape with over 75,000 acres of sweet-smelling citrus groves.

Among the most enduring symbols of that era is the orange crate label – a functional and promotional bit of ephemera that now holds a warm spot in the hearts of collectors, historians, art enthusiasts and the nostalgic.
This 1949 photo shows packers at the Yorba Linda Citrus Association’s packing house, including Judy Ledford who was looking directly into the camera. (Photo courtesy Orange County Archives)
More than simply identifying the type and source of the fruit inside each crate, the labels were a key branding and marketing tool.

The railroads brought boxed California citrus to big cities “back east,” where sample crates were put on display at fruit auctions. This was the moment the fruit crate label was created for. As hundreds of wholesale buyers perused countless samples, the colorful labels made each brand and grade easily identifiable, even across an enormous, crowded auction house. Most labels were seldom seen by the public, but were meant for these buyers, who bought anywhere from 30 boxes to multiple boxcars of oranges in a single transaction.
Arnold C. "Pete" Counts loads crates of oranges onto a railroad car at the Yorba Linda Packing House, circa 1949. (Photo courtesy Orange County Archives)
The sun began to set on citrus crate labels in 1956 when packing houses switched from wooden crates to cardboard boxes. And over the next ten years – as property values rose, the population boomed, “quick decline” disease struck groves, and property tax rates changed – the citrus industry fizzled out in Orange County.

The central portion of this new Orange County Archives exhibit shows the “life-cycle” of a crate label, from design and printing, to crate assembly, to the fruit-packing process, to the railroad cars, to the eastern fruit auctions, to neighborhood retail outlets, and finally finding new life in the creative reuse of old crates.
Earl Nickles, who grew up on the Tuffree citrus ranch in Placentia, loaned a “Shamrock” packing crate from Placentia Mutual Orange Association for the exhibit. (O.C. Register photo by Jebb Harris)
Also examined are the three styles or eras of label art seen between 1885 and 1955.

Another section of the exhibit highlights the ways labels were used to delineate qualities and sizes of fruit – visual cues that were clear to middlemen, but not to the general public. For instance, the Goldenwest Citrus Association of Tustin depicted its various qualities of fruit via naval ranks, from Admiral at the highest quality down to the lowly Sailor brand.

Also discussed are the many portraits of pianist Dorothy Ferguson painted for Anaheim Orange & Lemon Association labels by artist Joe Duncan Gleason in 1919. (There’s a story there, folks!) The packing house that used these labels was recently converted to an upscale food court called, naturally, The Packing House.
Fruit on display at Prescott Ranch Market, Highway 101 at 5th St, Tustin, 1940s. (Photo courtesy Orange County Archives)
Finally, the exhibit provides examples of Orange County itself providing the inspiration for local fruit crate label illustrations. Local spots depicted on citrus crate labels include Three Arch Bay and Bird Rocks in Laguna Beach, Hewes Park in El Modena, Lemon Heights and Red Hill in North Tustin, Old Saddleback, Mission San Juan Capistrano, and rural Anaheim.

After the exhibit whets your appetite for more box art, feel free to visit the Archives and ask to see the rest of the collection.
Laguna Beach on a Villa Park label. (Image courtesy Orange County Archives)
Long ago, some detractor called me “a crate label historian,” meaning that I only write about a falsely sunny and cheerful Orange County, as depicted on citrus labels. Certainly, there’s plenty of non-bile-laden history to be found in these parts, and I’ve written about a lot of it. But I’m not sure, for instance, how the stuff I’ve written about floods, earthquakes, arson, racism, murder, crime, and the demolition of historic sites would translate as crate label art. It’s just not Sunkist’s style.

Frankly, there is much to be learned from old crate labels. They tell us something about the history of agriculture, art and advertising, and about the locations depicted in their illustrations. Crate labels also provide a fine springboard for talking about the people, places and ideas that Americans once found important or appealing. But as much as I’d like to accept the mantle of “Crate Label Historian,” that title more appropriately belongs to Gordon McClelland and Jay Last, who wrote the defining books on this subject. Without their work, exhibits like this (and far more elaborate past crate label exhibits) would just be collections of pretty pictures.