In 1877, an unrefrigerated rail car filled with oranges pulled out of a Californian train depot, headed for market in St. Louis. Packed in wooden crates, the oranges were part of what would turn out to be a market-changing experiment: this was the first shipment of California-grown oranges to take a transcontinental train ride. And, as the label attached to the short end of each crate demonstrated, the idea for expanding citrus sales eastward was developed at Wolfskill Orchards, founded by William Wolfskill, the first commercial citrus grower in Alta California. The prudent and practical decision to tag the crates as “Wolfskill California Oranges” marked the beginning of what would become a distinctive form of commercial art: the citrus crate label. Within a decade, orchardists and fruit associations across California were using brightly colored box labels to build an identity for their orchards and advertise their produce.
Because most oranges grown in California in the late nineteenth century came from the same Brazilian parent trees that Eliza Tibbets and her husband, Luther, had grown in Riverside, crate labels became both a means of distinguishing the individual orchards, but also a sign of a grower’s success. Competition was fierce and quickly increasing (the state’s citrus crop grew tenfold between 1887 and 1901), and fruit associations attempted to maximize their chances of survival by creating difference through advertising. Some associations, including the brands on romance and nostalgia, emphasizing the Spanish origins of their fruit. But because some of the stiffest competition in the citrus market came not from Californians at all, but from still strong Spanish and Italian imports, labels also quickly became part of an “Americanization campaign” simultaneously selling patriotism and the romance of the American West.
Citrus crate art rapidly evolved from farm-created, family-oriented designs aimed at the end consumer (who was imagined to be a Midwest or East Coast homemaker) to a modernized, mass-printed brand aimed at the distributor (who was assumed to be a male “jobber in the East”). Growers were urged to take advantage of modern lithography techniques to use bolder, more vibrant colors and to develop more than one brand name to help distributors quickly distinguish grades of fruit—fancy, choice, and good—with just a glance at the crates.
For instance, the College Heights Orange and Lemon Association created a series of grading labels with scenes from campus and collegiate athletics. Not surprisingly, the Corona Foothill Lemon Company marked some of its crates with a label featuring a crown, but it also made famous a series based on Scottish kilts.
The last citrus crate labels were printed in the 1950s, when the pre-printed cardboard box became the shipper’s staple. In the years between the first and final labels, citrus crates bore testimony to fads and changing fashions, world events, and shifting modes of transportation. The labels featured here represent only a small sampling of what’s available—you can browse the entire Azusa Pacific University Collection here.