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Beautiful citrus crate labels featuring the Sunkist trademark have become highly collectible art forms and important artifacts of California-and American-history. Their bright colors and cheerful images remind us of the state's early alliance with health and the region's agricultural roots.
Before There Were Labels
Sunkist first used paper crate labels in the 1880s. Before then, wooden crate ends and barrel tops were crudely stenciled, stamped or burned with a brand name and packing location.
Why the Switch?
Strong local demand quickly spread eastward as the transcontinental railroad and steamship systems opened up new opportunities. California packers needed an effective way to identify and advertise a product for customers who lived thousands of miles away. They developed a wood shipping box about 12" x 12" x 27", and used a label about 10" x 11" on the box end. The brightly colored, attractively designed paper label attached to the end of a wooden box proved to be a key ingredient in the national marketing system.
Who Chose the Labels?
Growers and packers created their own labels. The images they chose related to their special interests or were designed to call attention to their product in the face of hundreds of competing brands. In the hands of a good artist and a talented graphic designer, the citrus box label became an elegant small poster, containing an easily understood and remembered message. The collaboration between fruit grower and commercial artist led to thousands of different label designs and a huge variety of subjects.
What Happened to All Those Labels?
Many of the labels designed and used over their rich 70-year history no longer exist or are extremely rare.
Labels were used on wooden citrus boxes until the mid-1950s, when the wooden boxes were replaced by cardboard boxes with preprinted labels on the box ends. The abrupt termination of the use of the wooden boxes left large quantities of unused labels in citrus packinghouses. These labels were gradually gathered up by collectors and form the main body of material existing for collectors today.
Some labels have been collected by soaking them off the end of old wooden boxes, but these are not numerous and are usually in poor condition. As such, soaked labels aren't a major factor in the collecting world. Other label sources include salesmen's sample books, lithographic company archives, citrus industry association archives and early collections put together by citrus growers and other industry workers.