With a name like Orange County, it’s easy to imagine that the roots of citrus agriculture are deeply embedded in local history. Beginning in the 1870s with the first planting of Valencia orange trees, Orange County ushered in the state’s “Second Gold Rush,” which lasted until about the 1970s. At its peak, millions of orange trees across tens of thousands of acres produced millions of pounds of citrus fruit per year. But fruit wasn’t the only thing produced en masse during this time; elaborate crate art became the industry standard for marketing produce and wooden crates across the country transformed into brightly colored works of art.

Pacific Fruit Express Ice Plant- Loading Ice Refrigerator Cars

New rail systems opened the door for Orange County citrus to sell at far away markets. With roughly 45 packing houses in Orange County alone, and other growers in states like Arizona, Florida, and Texas competition to attract buyers was fierce. In order to distinguish their produce, packing houses utilized a printing process rising in popularity, color lithography.

Lithography Company - Rooster Brand Label - Search Light Brand Label

Not much is known about the artists behind the artwork, as they were most often employed by large printing houses to create the labels. There were hundreds of these companies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was very uncommon to find identification of either the artist or the printing house on the prints.

Santiago Orange Growers Association - Epicure - Planet - Cardinal

Associations not only utilized crate art to attract buyers, but also to communicate the grade and size of the fruit being sold. For example, the Anaheim Orange and Lemon Association had more than five brand labels for their Valencias and the Santiago Orange Growers Association had nearly 10.  

Santiago Orange Growers Association - Yorba Orange Growers Association

Early citrus growers saw a need to collaborate in order to establish fair prices for their products. By the early 1940s, there were 45 packing houses in Orange County processing and shipping millions of pounds of citrus for local grove owners. The name of the packing house was nearly always included on the crate label.

SweetTreat - Shamrock - Morning Sun

The images on crate art often depicted the idyllic scenes of what non-Californians believed California to be like. People weren’t just buying the produce, they were buying the story of where that produce had come from – lush, rolling groves with picturesque views of mountains or the ocean. A modern day comparison can be made to the “Happy cows come from California” campaign of the California Milk Advisory Board.

Coming out of World War II, there was a shortage of wood and a dramatic increase in its price. For an industry that relied on wooden crates to distribute fruit across the country, this was a big deal. Think about the California Fruit Growers Exchange which required 40 million crates a year by the 1940s! By the 1950s, cardboard boxes began to replace wooden crates as a cheaper alternative. With the ability to pre-print designs on the cardboard, the need for printed labels was eliminated, and the artform faded away.  Now considered an American folk art, crate labels are collected for their artistic, historical, and monetary value.