Crate Art | Weekly View


This column first appeared in September 2010.

Paper labels from the 1880-1930s, collectively referred to as “crate art,” are a unique form of American folk art. Originally designed to be taped to the ends of wooden crates to identify products during shipping, the graphically appealing labels are still reasonably priced and worth considering for your “Items to Watch for” list.
The stone lithography used on the earliest labels was a very complicated process, requiring a separate stone for each color used. Up to fifty different colors could be created by combining five primary tones. In 1930 the lithographic process was switched from stone to metal plates. Specimens from before 1930 are interesting for collectors.
Labels used on old cigar boxes were popular with collectors as early as the Victorian era. By the 1870s, thousands of brands of cigars were being manufactured in the United States, offering a plethora of labels to choose from. Examples from this time frame showed up to twenty different colors on a single label. Embossed designs with gold highlights are a common find. Many of the 1880-1920 cigar box labels feature images of well-known politicians, with Lincoln being a particularly popular one. Sporting topics and hobbies are also widespread among gentlemen in golf, cards or checkers.
Fruit box art has grown in popularity over the past decade as appreciation for primitives of all kinds has sparked the interest of the collecting public. California fruit and vegetable growers were leaders in this form of advertising at the end of the 19th century. Their use of colorful lithographic labels was an instant hit with the public and skyrocketed product sales. No wonder competitors in the southern and central western states took notice and soon followed suit. In the early 1900s, every 2,000+ citrus, apple, and pear growers in America offered their version of a crate label. Spanish senoritas, landscapes, sea scenes and even Santa Clauses have graced the sides of the boxes over the years. Very early examples are found with more romantic themes, with cupids and portraits of very finely dressed ladies.
The size and delicacy of fruit and vegetables determined the size of the box in which they were packed. For example, tomatoes and grapes could not be stacked as high as lemons or oranges. That is why they were packed in long, narrow “stollen boxes”. Grape and tomato labels are approximately 5″ x 14″, apple and orange labels are typically 10″ x 11″, lemon labels are 9″ x 12″, pears are 8″ x 10″, and standard vegetable labels are 5″ x 5″ x 7″ or 7″ x 9″ reproduction labels often do not match this size specification.
A 1918 survey showed that attracting the male wholesaler was more important than the housewife. As a result, you will find that labels printed after 1918 tend to feature a more seductively feminine form than those issued earlier. It’s also interesting to note that most of the labels were designed to be appreciated as “art” and rarely, if ever, had anything to do with the box’s contents.
A label’s price is determined by its rarity, age, condition and graphic appeal. Labels are still fairly easy to find due to the nature of the original purpose. Printed on acid-free paper, they were made to withstand the abrasion and humidity of the refrigerated railroad cars that carried them to their destinations. Until next time . . . linda

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Linda Kennett can be reached at 317-258-7835 or [email protected]

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