Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Vintage fruit crate labels inspire massive collection

November/December 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Collector's hobby provides colorful reminder of California's citrus heritage

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Tom Spellman began collecting vintage packing labels for California citrus and other produce about 40 years ago. Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

It was the bare, wood-paneled walls of an office trailer that first inspired Tom Spellman to purchase a few citrus crate labels as décor for the citrus and avocado nursery he managed in the early 1980s. Nearly 40 years later, Spellman has amassed a collection of about 1,500 historical citrus crate labels and 3,000 other agricultural labels used on wooden packing boxes from the mid-1880s to the mid-1950s. The San Bernardino County resident is an active member of the Citrus Label Society, a Southern California group of roughly 250 collectors from around the world who enjoy sharing and preserving the history of these lithographed reminders of California's rich citrus heritage.

What's the history of citrus labels? Beginning in 1885, citrus crate labels were decoratively designed and lithographed, then pasted onto the ends of wooden shipping boxes. They had colorful illustrations that made the boxes stand out, with details about the enclosed oranges, lemons or grapefruit, and the packer and shipper names. Between the end of World War II and 1955, there was a gradual conversion to preprinted cardboard boxes. While the last crate labels were printed in 1955, some packers kept stacks of labels just in case this cardboard phase didn't last. Those labels are now collectible.

What's so cool about collecting labels? Citrus labels are little historical posters of the West. They were used to market produce by showing what was in the box, while promoting California—its scenery, places and lifestyle from the 19th and 20th centuries. Imagine someone in Boston receiving a crate of California navel oranges during a winter snowstorm, with a label depicting a beautiful California sunset or beach scene. It was like getting exotic fruit from the Western frontier.

What types of labels do you collect? Most of my labels favor landscapes of Central and Southern California—especially Upland, where I live, and San Bernardino County. Some of my favorites depict the region's Western lifestyle and Mount Baldy.

How does someone develop a collection? There are different ways to approach collecting. Some people concentrate on labels with landscapes, historical buildings, geographic regions, birds, flowers or people. It's fun to just collect the images that you find appealing.

Any advice for a novice label collector? It's a simple hobby to begin, and you can build a small collection without spending a lot of money. There are probably 300 to 400 images that are easy to find for $5 to $25. Start off with what you like and that's readily available. Later, you can focus your collection if you wish. As with any hobby, buy the best you can afford if you want to see your labels increase in value.

The colorfully illustrated lithographs preserve a view into the history, natural beauty and agricultural heritage of the state. Photo: © 2019 Lori Fusaro

How many citrus label images were produced? It's estimated 10,000 different images were designed for California citrus packers. This is based on the number of brands and the evolution of brand label designs over 75 to 80 years.

What determines a citrus label's value? Four things determine a label's value: rarity, age, condition and desirability of the image. A nice landscape or a bold, colorful Western image is desirable. Labels from the early days of production, 1890-1910, are rare and typically the most valuable. Rarer labels can cost $200 to $1,000. Some are in the $4,000 to $6,000 range.

Is there a "holy grail" when it comes to citrus label collecting? The holy grail would be an obscure label used on some of the very first shipments of fruit from California.

How can someone learn more? Check out the Citrus Label Society website and other online sources to get basic information about citrus labels. Talk with collectors at places such as the Rose Bowl swap meet, where you'll see some beautiful examples on display. We welcome everyone to learn more at our Citrus Label Society meetings.

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