If you visited a farmer’s market or walked into a grocery story stockroom in Florida up through the 1950s, you’d find oranges, grapefruits, and kumquats stacked in wood crates with colorful labels on each end. As kids, we used leftover orange crates for storing all kinds of things until they suddenly disappeared in favor of boring cardboard boxes. While the use of orange crate label art began in California in the 1880s, the practice soon moved to Florida which still has a near-monopoly on U. S. citrus production.
If you Google “orange crate labels” or “vintage orange crate labels,” you’ll quickly find many of the major labels. If you stop by Florida Southern College in Lakeland, you can look at the digitized collection of labels at the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. (Many of these can be viewed on line.) Labels, and related post card advertising, are almost always for sale on eBay
While the artists were popular names at the time, their work on the ends of those utilitarian crates was seldom signed. For one thing, its purpose was identifying a grower or a shipper to grocery store chains and distributors, not the general public.
In his 2015 review of Florida’s First Billboards: Florida Citrus Crate Labels, Kevin Bouffard wrote, “A new book stands for the proposition that Florida citrus crate labels played as much a role in the development of the state and its signature agricultural industry as Anita Bryant, beaches and Walt Disney.” No doubt, the book’s limited printing meant that most copies ended up with those who collect and/or sell orange crate labels. Two earlier books are long out of print and hard to find.
When my wife and I set up a general store shelf exhibit for a Georgia museum, we enjoyed purchasing old orange crate labels as well as the labels used on canned goods to add to the ambiance and realism of our displays. The “Belle of Crescent City” was one of the labels we chose.
I mention a few of the racially pejorative labels in Eulalie and Washerwoman when my conjure woman protagonist borrows some crates from the local general store. She was quick to notice the “Southern charm” of labels featuring happy African Americans–many of whom were forced to pick the oranges just as others were forced to work in turpentine camps–as though they were in change of the orange groves and personally selected the oranges in the crates. Labels from Indian River featured Indians, some in skimpy dress. Others featured women in bathing suits or were purposefully racy.
When we used orange crates for hauling and storing things, we noticed the labels, but never made an attempt to salvage them. Now I wish we had. We might make a few dollars on eBay or donate them to the Citrus Hall of Fame for its collection. Even the sexist and racist labels are part of our history, something we hope never to repeat, but generally speaking, most of the labels are advertising works of art. I’m sorry to see them gone.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the 1950s-era novel Eulalie and Washerwoman, a story of kidnapped men, stolen houses, and a conjure woman’s magic.
Visit his website here.