Friday, July 20, 2012

When shipping produce was an art

Until the introduction of inexpensive corrugated cardboard boxes in the 1960s, growers and distributors of vegetables and fruits shipped their produce in wooden crates. The practice began in the 1870s soon after the completion of the transcontinental railroad and the development of refrigerated boxcars. For the first time, produce grown in farmlands and groves became widely available to consumers hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

The packing boxes initially were imprinted to indicate the contents, company name and place of origin. Most markets and grocery stores displayed produce in the same wooden crates in which it was shipped, so growers and distributors realized that fancier labeling was a great way to differentiate their produce from their competitors' and catch the shopper's eye. By the 1920s, fully colored lithographed labels—emblazoned with striking images such as tropical flowers, boats, historical figures and bathing beauties—became common. But the most common theme was the produce itself: apples from Washington and Oregon, oranges from California, vegetables from Texas, sweet potatoes and yams from Louisiana, citrus from Florida. The labels were printed on high-quality paper and glued onto the ends of the boxes.

Little is known about the artists who created these enticing images. Many were German immigrants who came to New York and Chicago and learned commercial art skills at trade schools, according to Collectors Weekly. They would then head to large printing houses like Schmidt Litho in San Francisco or Western Lithograph in Los Angeles. A large company might employ 100 artists, all of whom worked anonymously.

The widespread use of crate labels came to a halt by the 1960s when growers and distributors replaced the heavier wooden crates with corrugated cardboard boxes, which were cheaper, lighter and easier to store.

Some of these unused labels languished for decades in warehouses, printers’ files and farmers’ barns. They now are a market for collectors. Prices are determined by age, rarity, graphic appeal and subject matter. The price for a rare, high-quality, well-designed label could reach $30 to $40. The more common labels, such as those discovered in bulk, sell for $2 to $15. Collectors Weekly offers some guidance on prices and designs.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll present some of these packing labels. As a lot, they are an artistic, historically relevant and even humorous bit of Americana. Please indulge me: one of my loves is birding, so let’s begin with songbird-themed labels.

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