The lure of the label
Sept./Oct. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Matt Salvo and Paolo Vescia
Promoting produce and a bountiful life in California
The LoBues market some of the citrus fruit they grow, pack and ship based on the vintage Sun Grove and Sunrapt label designs the family used in he 1930s and '40s. The third and fourth generations of the family include, from left, Philip LoBue, Joe LoBue, Jennifer LoBue, Ronald Lacey, Fred LoBue Jr. and Roxanne LoBue Parish.
Collected in homes, antique stores and art exhibits—and sometimes discovered in dark corners of old packing sheds—colorful produce-crate labels live on as treasures of Americana. These popular and vibrant works of art inform and inspire, telling a story of California agriculture and the nation's westward expansion.
The 70-year practice of using eye-catching labels on wooden crates of fruits and vegetables began around 1870 with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the first system of railroad tracks that linked West to East. Coupled with the imaginative marketing efforts of produce shippers to reach produce buyers, the railroad infrastructure and the introduction of the iced refrigerator car not only boosted the growth of agriculture in California, but fueled the state's economic and social development as well.
San Luis Obispo-area label collector Frank Gallucci said that once labels became a common method for attracting produce buyers, competition arose among shippers to create the most attractive labels.
Although LoBue Citrus in Lindsay has replaced its wooden crates with cardboard boxes, it continues to use the Sunrapt design for domestic shipments of navel and valencia oranges.
"Someone would come up with a better label and a year later, his competitor would come up with yet a better label," said Gallucci, owner of Vintage Illustration. "It's just like going into a bookstore. Part of the appeal of the book is the cover, and that is why (produce shippers) worked so hard on the graphics."
Bright, bold colors and large, block letters were common in labels used by the LoBue family, which has been farming in California for more than three-quarters of a century. Fred LoBue Jr. recalls their early label designs, which continue to shape the marketing strategies for some of the family's citrus products today.
Fred LoBue Jr. shows a portrait of his grandfather, who immigrated from Italy in 1914.
"The very first label we used on the ranch was one called 'Yellow Jacket' in the 1930s. I remember the Yellow Jacket brand being all over the packinghouse when I was a kid," said LoBue, a grower, packer and shipper of fresh citrus and citrus juice products with his family. "Our other labels, 'Sunrapt' and 'Sun Grove,' were used in the 1940s. The whole idea was to be attractive to the wholesaler."
LoBue Citrus traces its history to 1914 when Philip LoBue—Fred LoBue Jr.'s grandfather—migrated to America from Sicily with his family and eventually made a down payment on a 40-acre orange grove near Lindsay. In 1934, illness prompted the elder LoBue to turn the property over to sons Mario, Fred Sr. and Joe. The sons worked hard to build the business into what it is today: one of the largest independent commercial packers and marketers of citrus in the nation.
Philip LoBue pauses in the area where navel oranges are sorted and packed.
Fred LoBue Jr. points out that shipments of high-quality, California-grown produce promoted with fancy labels portrayed the Golden State as a botanical Eden. Growers, packers and shippers such as the LoBues realized that the railroad was key to moving fruit and vegetables thousands of miles to the big Eastern markets such as New Orleans, Chicago and New York.
"What really made California citrus—and a lot of California produce—a nationwide trend was the invention of the iced railroad car, which had ice bunkers at each end," LoBue said. "They had a flow-through method: The ice was at the front of the car and it would be vented so that the colder air would move through the car and keep the produce cold. They had stops along the way to re-ice."
To view the historic method of keeping produce cool, visitors to the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento walk through an authentic 1920s Pacific Fruit Express railroad car. And for the next several months, this rail car will house more than 100 iconic labels from the fruit crate era of California agriculture—from the 1880s through 1955.
"It is the type of car that helped build California agriculture," explained exhibit coordinator Robert Mistchenko. "I have yet to meet anybody who doesn't have a favorite label. We had no idea how successful and how fun it would be."
Robert Mistchenko, exhibit coordinator at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, carefully handles a 1940s citrus label from Redlands.
Mistchenko said that the fruit crate era began when 19th century grower-packers replaced stencil-marked crates with artwork from the period. From 1885 through the 1920s, naturalism was the focus, as most labels were painted by artists from Europe and took on a Victorian look with realistic flowers, animals, mission architecture and pioneer life. At this point, Mistchenko said, farmers had started to realize the principles of advertising, which is to "make mine stand out."
"During that early period, there's a decided European look to a lot of the labels," he said. "The Sierra looks suspiciously like the Alps and all of the kids have rosy cheeks."
The next defined period of crate labels was from 1920 through 1935, when marketing cooperatives and associations—owned and operated by farmers—started issuing guidelines for labels. Some, for example, began to equate consuming citrus with a healthy lifestyle.
Crates stacked for loading into the cars illustrate another step in how California produce was shipped across the country.
"These labels were not really intended to sell the image of California around the country and around the world, but they unintentionally contributed to that," Mistchenko said. "At this point, you're starting to associate California with palm trees, orchards of oranges and the beach."
Labels on citrus fruit marketed for growers under the Sunkist brand in particular provided the iconic artwork that people from throughout the country recognize, Mistchenko said.
"I've talked to many, many people who say their best Christmas present was a crate of oranges from California," he said. "You got this good-tasting stuff that is healthy for you and it's coming from this magical place. I think that has a lot to do with why citrus has a predominant role in our minds as the archetypal fruit crate label."
Labels from 1935 to the end of the fruit crate era in 1955 are defined under the category of commercial art. At this time, Mistchenko said, new and sophisticated techniques in the way art was produced—such as the use of air brushing and photography—again changed the look of the labels.
Robert Mistchenko readies a display that shows the lithography process used to print a label.
"A lot of these labels are done with big, block letters. Some have bypassed the need to graphically show you a beautiful orange or a luscious bunch of grapes," Mistchenko said. "Basically, it is commercial art."
The widespread use of crate labels came to a halt in the mid-1950s as packinghouses replaced the heavier, more expensive wooden crates with cardboard boxes, which were cheaper, lighter, easier to store and could be printed.
"The switch to cardboard happened overnight," Fred LoBue Jr. said.
Like many other grower-packers, the LoBue family set its inventory of labels aside and started using cardboard boxes. A warehouse fire in 1968 ruined all but a few of the early labels.
Jack Durnell, 2, and sister Ava, 5, from Antioch, create their own labels from an interactive wall of magnets.
"It was typical of our dads to not throw anything away," LoBue said. "Our uncle and his friend saved some of the original labels that got wet in the fire, so those were saved."
Philip LoBue, Fred Jr.'s cousin and eldest son of co-founder Mario, said in the days of crate labels—as well as today—a company's brand is its reputation. He added, "We're still doing what these early labels set out to do back then."
"We continue to pursue growth in the distribution of our brands," Fred LoBue Jr. said. "Even though we have new labels and a new identity, it is our reputation, integrity and honesty of dealing with people that is really carrying us into the next phase here in the next generation."
Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
The history of produce crate labels
1840s: Early railroads experiment with shipments of perishable foods cooled by ice.
1870s: The first labels appear on produce crates. Subject matter reflected a European style. Artists immigrated to the U.S. and came to California because fine artists were in demand by railroad companies to create images for their publications, inviting people to come west.
1869: May 10 marks the completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad, as the Union Pacific tracks join those of the Central Pacific Railroad.
1869 and subsequent decades: Techniques for cooling insulated wooden railroad cars—using ice—are perfected. A vast new market opens for California farmers.
1885-1920 (Period of "Naturalism"): Popular produce crate art of this period includes idyllic California scenery, realistic flowers and the depiction of pioneer life.
1907: The Pacific Fruit Exchange begins operation with a fleet of 6,000 refrigerated cars that have rooftop hatches through which ice is loaded to keep produce cool.
1908: California Fruit Growers Exchange, now Sunkist Growers, adopts the Sunkist trademark for use on its highest-quality oranges. This marks the first time a perishable food is advertised on such a wide scale.
1920-1935 (Period of "Advertising"): Farmer-owned cooperatives begin to set standards for label design such as using photos of the commodity and selling California produce as the source of youth, energy and the good life.
1935-1955 (Period of "Commercial Art"): Crate labels take on a different look as new artistic techniques are developed, such as the use of photography. Packers emphasize brand awareness and eye-catching designs such as labels with large, block letters and bright colors.
1955: Packers adopt the use of cardboard boxes. Lighter and cheaper to use, the boxes replace wooden shipping crates almost overnight.
Labels tell a story, make a connection
Edward Graveline of Clovis collects labels that remind him of his days loading ice into refrigerated railroad cars.
The practice of using artwork on labels for fruit and vegetable crates flourished from the 1880s through 1955. But when cardboard boxes replaced wooden crates, packinghouses often discarded the colorful labels—not realizing there would be a resurgence of interest.
"A lot of times, the labels were put in a box and forgotten or left in a basement or a barn. Even today, people are still discovering huge caches of labels," Robert Mistchenko said. "It is a living treasure hunt that still happens today."
Mistchenko has done much of that hunting himself, as coordinator of an exhibit of more than 100 produce labels at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. He said visitors of all ages commonly connect with the works of art.
"Hundreds of people come through the exhibit saying, 'Is there one from where I came from?' or, 'I remember that one,' or, 'I know that guy. I remember that farm; it was right down the road,'" Mistchenko said.
For Clovis raisin grower Edward Graveline, the search for historically significant produce labels was a personal endeavor, to add to his love of everything railroad and to find labels to serve as a reminder of his days with Union Ice Co.
While working for the company in Fresno County, Graveline loaded blocks of ice into the ends and tops of iced railroad cars to help keep the fruits and vegetables cool during their cross-country trek.
"In the 1960s, we iced melons at a number of Firebaugh and Mendota melon sheds," Graveline said, while admiring his framed cantaloupe labels in a room full of railroad memorabilia. "These labels are artwork from a different era. Looking at the different labels, you get a feel for who ran these sheds."
The exhibit of produce labels at the California State Railroad Museum—called "Pick Me! Fruit Crate Art & the California Dream"—continues through March 30, 2012. Labels come from the museum's own collection and the California State Library. For more information, visit www.csrmf.org or call 916-445-6645.
A California Country reporter says…
I'm proud of my California farming heritage
Here I am enjoying an interview with Robert Mistchenko, the coordinator for the exhibit, "Pick Me! Fruit Crate Art & the California Dream" at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. Although the museum is considered the largest train museum in the country, visitors of all ages can also learn about California agriculture.
Story by Christine Souza
Writing a feature for California Country magazine about produce labels, and the farming, art and history they represent, helps me retrace my own family history.
As a suburbanite from Turlock, I am very proud of my family's agricultural heritage, which dates back to the 1860s in California.
For each produce label that exists, there are hundreds if not thousands of stories, including a few that my dad passed on to me about my own family.
Great Uncle Earl (Earl Merritt), far left, and Grandpa Bill (William "Bill" Merritt), left center, are shown working together in the late 1920s or early 1930s, building crates for cantaloupes. Imagine having to nail all those wood pieces together!
My grandparents Bill and Virginia Merritt worked in agriculture many years. They often followed the summer melon season from Yuma, Ariz., and the Imperial Valley, to the Central Valley. When the last juicy melon was packed, they traveled north to the Smith River to fish—they loved to fish together.
During melon season, my grandmother was a "sticker girl" and she and the other ladies would paste the stickers onto the melons, while Grandpa Bill packed the melons. He packed for grower-shippers in California and Arizona, and for his brother Earl of E.W. Merritt Farms in Porterville.
Earl Merritt, shown here in the late 1950s, stands in a railroad car with crates of Merritt's Blue Ribbon Quality honeydew melons. The wire cage at the back of the boxcar is where ice was packed.
Grandpa was in demand as a packer partly because he had large hands, was fast and could put out a "good pack," which meant the melons were uniform, fit nicely in the crate and represented a top-grade product. For this skill, he earned over $100 a day when the minimum wage was much less than $1 an hour.
This family label, "Meritorious Brand California Honeydews," was for E.W. Merritt, Grower & Shipper, while packing in Brawley and Manteca. Circa 1930s.
In the 1930s, E.W. Merritt Farms sold honeydews under the Blue Ribbon and Meritorious labels, which are still reflected in the marketing of their melons today. Earl, after one of his honeydews won a blue ribbon at the California State Fair, used this concept as a way to tell buyers of his fruit's blue ribbon status.
Each Merritt honeydew melon was identified by a blue ribbon sticker.
Today, E.W. Merritt Farms is a diversified operation that grows a variety of commodities including melons, cotton, corn, wheat, alfalfa, grapes, walnuts, olives and beef cattle.
Like the Merritts, farmers throughout California have come an incredibly long way since those early days of shipping crated produce by iced railcar. It is important to remember the stories behind those labels that informed the rest of the country about what California had to offer. I invite you to share your produce label stories and related photos.