Groves of Gold

California Fruit Box Labels

March 19 - August 14, 2005

More than 400 original fruitbox labels, each one a miniature work of art, trace the growth of California’s fruit industry from the 1880s through the 1950s.

Paper labels were first used in Southern California in the 1880s to identify the brand name and packing location of fresh citrus fruit. Growers and packers were responsible for providing their own labels and the images they chose related to their own special interests, or were designed to call attention to their products in the face of hundreds of other competing brands.

To implement their ideas, the growers and packers formed collaborative relationships with commercial lithographic printers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which led to the production of thousands of innovative designs. In the hands of a good artist and talented graphic designer, the citrus box label became an elegant small poster, containing a message that was easily understood and remembered.

The labels embody the development of advertising, showing changing trends in typography and graphic design and reflecting the marketing ideas of their times. Through their small and perfectly executed pictures, they depict California as a fertile paradise and it’s people as beautiful, made healthy through the consumption of fresh produce.

The images range from exquisite depictions of fruit and blossom, groves and missions, through wild west themes of cowboys, Indians, bears and deer. The influence of Hollywood is apparent in the labels form the thirties and forties with cartoon characters, beach and sports references and desert and mountain vistas. Beautiful women were a constant, whether demure Victorian ladies or saucy 1940s sirens.

The labels were used until the mid 1950s when pre-printed cardboard packaging replaced the old wooden crates.  However the art still exercises its appeal and today a thriving market exists for the remaining labels. This is perhaps one of the few areas where a collector can own a piece of California history  for a very modest outlay.

The exhibition was curated by historian, author and collector Gordon McClelland and California Heritage Museum curator, Michael Trotter.