The art of antique crate labels

Polo BrandWhen I was growing up, my father collected antique signs. I loved some of the old images which were amongst the earliest commercial images. It’s not surprising, then, that I felt an immediate attraction to antique crate labels as soon as I saw them.

Fruit and vegetable growers started using colorful labels on their caratesto identify (and advertise) their wares starting in the late 19th century. The crates were used as in-store displays, so the labels were an important part of the marketing effort and often featured vivid and appealing artwork, much of which had an Art Deco influence. I, of course, have collected only those labels that feature horses on them. Luckily for me, there are many!

According to this website, very little is known about the artists who produced these wonderful images.

Many of the artists were German immigrants who came to cities like New York and Chicago and attended trade schools to learn commercial art skills. They would often head for California to work for large printing houses like Schmidt Litho in San Francisco or LeaderWestern Lithograph in Los Angeles, just two of the hundreds of companies producing labels in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Individual label artists were rarely, if ever, credited for their work. In fact, it’s even unusual to find a printing company’s identification on a label. In some instances, as with certain Western Lithograph labels, this branding is accompanied by a date indicating the month and year it was printed. A large company might employ 100 artists, who worked anonymously.

Blue LarkspurIt is interesting to note that fruit crate labels from the early 20th century document many European artists’ initial impressions and romantic notions of life in the United States. Perhaps, their idealized portraits of glorious fruit, colorful cowboys and Indians, rosy-cheeked children, and wholesome “pin-up girls” reflect the spirit of optimism shared by immigrant artists recently arrived in the fertile agricultural regions of California.

Most of these labels were printed by the great lithographers of the era in San Francisco. Most of the original paintings — created on linen — are lost. And the when cardboard boxes were introduced in the 1950s, growers turned to this more cost effective way of shipping their fruit. Luckily, many of these wonderful labels were saved and they remain as a testament to the inspired and idealistic artists of the era and provide a glimpse into the California of the first half of the Twentieth century.

Another reason why these images resonate with me is that my maternal grandfather was a commercial artist for an advertising agency. While he did not create the artwork for labels, he was responsible (anonymously) for the ads that appeared in magazines. An impressive artist and photographer in his own right, I’ve never known what campaigns he worked on.

Stay tuned for some more fabulous label art! Or you can check out my new Website, Le Cheval Nouveau, where I’m posting all of the images from my collection.


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