Crating Up The California Dream

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If the orange was the tangible, edible symbol of all that California was supposed to be, then the single most ubiquitous and effective means ever devised by the citrus growers of the state to get their message across was the label pasted on the sides if wooden crates that swelled with packed fruit. In such labels, industry, art, and symbol became one, and on these and the following pages we offer a definitive selection.

From the beginning, the California citrus-crate label defied all attempts at taking it too seriously. It was an art form as inadvertent as it was handsome, and had about it an insouciant confidence, an agreeable sassiness, that made it seem content to remain just what it was: uncomplicated, forward, and cheerful.

From the 1880’s until the late 1940’s (and the advent of the drab, preprinted carton), lithographed citrus-crate labels were artfully designed to hawk both fruit and California. Each label was in chesty, clamorous competition with all the others, so the graphics, colors, and very name of each demanded that a fruit buyer buy—and right then. (Only rarely did that sense of amiable effrontery lapse, as it did, for instance, with the short-lived Just As Good lemon brand.) And in the labels’ apparently endless and random variety there was calculated continuity. Repeated motifs of rugged mountains, fertile valleys, and lush flora, or coy señoritas , cowboys, Indians, and other exotica—all reinforced by the constant use of blue (suggesting sea and sky) and or gold (sun, richies)—produced the sought-after image: California-as-cornucopia. As the snappy turn-of-the-century ad slogan had it. “Oranges for health—California for wealth.” It was a package-deal pitch that Eastern palates and imaginations gobbled right up.

The 1920’s and 30’s were the peak production years in California: designs by the thousand, labels by the billion. The small, anonymous art staffs at Schmidt and at Western, the state’s two great litho houses, were under tremendous pressure to develop ever-fresher ideas: the consistently high caliber of their staggering output still amazes. California Dream, opposite, is quintessential El Dorado fantasy, with its San Simeon-inspired castle afloat in golden mist and peacocks strutting in a blue-boled wood. Blue Goose, left, is a classic of simplicity, and Red Circle anticipated op art by a good twenty-five years. Full o’ Juice goes directly to the heart of the matter.

The California citrus-crate label was sad or silly or colorful or amusing, but it was always positive , a literal sign of its time—a peerless vehicle for making the American hard sell easier to take.