The history of fruit crate labels is a part of the larger story of the westward expansion of the United States.
Before railroads made transcontinental shipping a reality, fruit and other perishable produce was grown only for local markets. The shorter distance between the farmer and the consumer meant there was less need for fruit brokers and middle men.
Consumers frequently bought directly from the producer and there was no need for brand identity. The farmer or grocer might stencil their name on the box, but a box of apples was just a box of apples.
Railroads shaped the West in many ways. They brought immigrants to the West (many of whom bought land from the railroad) and shipped Western products back to burgening markets in the east.
Early settlers in the region arrived to find an arid land with rich soil that received less than 6 inches of precipitation during the growing season. These pioneers faced some basic challenges in their struggle to build a regional fruit industry: finding the right land, finding a way to bring water to the land, and finally, finding a way to get their crops to distant markets.
"An Act Regulating Irrigation and Water Rights in the County of Yakima, Washington Territory" was passed in 1873 to enable and regulate what were then primarily private irrigation companies.
By 1884 the Northern Pacific Railway had arrived in what was to become North Yakima in Washington Territory. By 1888 orchardists in Yakima County could ship their fruit to Eastern markets and to the growing markets on the west side of the Cascades.
Successfully selling apples grown in the Northwest to consumers in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago or New York was not just a matter of getting the fruit shipped out. It also required the development of a marketing framework that linked the grower to a local packing house, the packer to national distributors, who sent buyers to regional fruit markets and auction halls where train loads of fresh fruit arrived daily. The fruit crate label was designed to attract the attention of those buyers, who acted as brokers between the fruit growers and the wholesale houses. Because growers competed against one another on the quality of their product, brand identity became an important marketing tool.
"Thousands of cases of uniformly crated fruit stood in rows on the concrete floors. Buyers would pace down the aisles and look for the labels that they had found to mean quality . . . The label had to do its job completely and effectively in a matter of moments."
Pat Jacobsen's Millenum Guide to Fruit Crate Labels (2000)
Picked fruit was moved from a grower's field to the packing house, and from there to a regional distribution center where it was purchased by fruit brokers acting on behalf of wholesalers.
Fruit crate labels were introduced in the last decades of the 19th century. The earliest labels were created using stone lithographic processes.
According to Washington State Fruit Industry. . . a brief history (1972) by W. A. Luce, the "first order of box labels (25,000) was placed by the Yakima County Horticultural Union in 1907."Available at Yakima Valley Libraries
After 1910, half-tone techniques and rotary off-set printing became the dominant method of label production. Regardless of how they were produced, fruit crate labels were designed to be visually appealing. Successful labels were art in the service of commerce.
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divides labels into two catagories, private and stock. Private labels were custom designed for the exclusive use of a specific grower or business. Stock labels were pre-printed templates that could have a grower's or business's name and details added.
The author also mentions the informal practice of label color coding that became widely adopted over time. Background colors on the label were used to identify the grade of apples in the box. Blue labels were used for extra fancy, red for fancy, and green, white or yellow for C grade fruit.
Click to find at Yakima Valley Libraries
estimates that in the 120 years that fruit crate labels were used, over half a trillion labels were produced, with fewer than 1 percent of them still in existance today. The author refers to crate labels as "accidental artifacts." Designed to advertise perishable produce, the labels were never intended as durable keepsakes, but they have become highly sought-after collectibles. Popular labels weren't saved because they were effective sales tools, they were saved because people liked how they looked.