Subjects of Images in Fruit Crate Labels

Why does A SLICE IN TIME focus primarily on Citrus and other Fruit Crate Label art made prior to World War II?

Most of the fruit crate labels we work with were made between 1887 and 1939. That’s because the ink used by lithographers during this time frame lends a special unique charm to the art. Labels evolved after the beginning of World War II, when that distinctive ink became unavailable due to war efforts.

Subjects & Themes: Art captured in time.
One of the most engaging qualities of vintage citrus label art is the diverse breadth of scenes that were portrayed – truly, there’s something to make everyone smile. The artists that were hired to design fruit crate labels often relied on recurring subjects and themes as a way of marketing produce brands.

It was not uncommon, for example, to see images of playful children featured on the labels. Animals were also a popular subject over the decades – from depictions of wild mountain lions to familiar and loveable house pets.

Given the origin of many brands, it may not be surprising to learn that a great number of citrus labels depict themes pertaining to California in general. The Golden State was highly romanticized, with vivid visual references to stately missions or tall palm trees surrounding the coastline.

Finally, of course, a consistent touch of humor was incorporated in so many of the crate label designs - a testament to the wonderful whimsy of these classic pieces.

There are three clearly designated periods for the label era: Naturalism, Advertising and Commercial Art. These three categories are based on the time period of a design as well as its subject matter. Since A Slice in Time deals primarily with Naturalism and Advertising, let’s explore these a little more closely:

Naturalism – 1887 to 1920
Subjects: Western boundaries, birds/animals of the west, miners, cowboys, Native Americans, etc.

When vintage fruit labels were just beginning to take shape, artists seldom used the fruit itself as an actual subject. Instead, the first few decades of citrus crate art was designed to reflect the untamed West– an interpretation of the produce’s intriguing origins. As the old saying goes, “You don’t sell the steak – you sell the sizzle.” And in this case, the artist wasn’t selling the citrus; they were selling the rich potential of the wild and wonderful Western frontier.

Advertising – 1920 to 1935

Subjects: Children with produce, fruit pies, glasses of juice, bowls of citrus, etc.

After 1920, a new trend swept the scenes on fruit crate label artwork. By that time, the West wasn’t so wild any longer. Leaps in transportation and agricultural innovation meant that citrus fruit had become a mainstay in American life. It was a familiar sight on tables and in kitchens across the nation. The subjects, then, transformed into something far more accessible. It wasn’t about the untamed Western source of the fruit; it was about Americans’ relationship with the citrus and its growers. Growers realized that the label was a prime promotional vehicle, so artists began to emphasize the value of produce in a household environment.




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