Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

April 23, 2014

Linda Hamer Kennett: Crate art

Linda Hamer Kennett Local Columnist
Greensburg Daily News

---- — Paper labels from 1880 to 1930, collectively referred to as “Crate Art,” are a unique form of American Folk Art.

Originally designed to be glued to the ends of wooden crates to identify produce during shipping, the graphically attractive labels are still attainable at a reasonable price and worthy of consideration for your “items to watch for” list.

Stone lithography, used on the earliest labels, was a very involved process requiring a separate stone for each color used. By combining five primary tones, as many as 50 different colors could be produced. In 1930 the lithography process switched from stone to metal plates. The examples before 1930 are the ones that are of interest to collectors.

Labels used on old cigar boxes were popular with collectors as early as the Victorian era. By 1870 there were thousands of brands of cigars being produced in the United States, providing a wealth of labels to choose from.

Examples from this time frame featured up to 20 different colors on a single label. Embossed designs with gold highlights are a common find. Many of the cigar box labels from 1880 to 1920 feature images of popular political figures, with Abraham Lincoln being a favorite. Sports themes and hobbies are also prevalent with gentlemen playing golf, cards or checkers.

Fruit crate art has increased in popularity over the past decade. The fruit and vegetable growers of California led the way with this form of advertising in the late 1800s. Their use of colorful lithograph labels was an instant hit with the public, sending the sale of produce soaring. It is no wonder that their competitors in the southern and mid-western states took notice and soon followed suite.

By the early 1900s all of the more than 2,000 citrus, apple and pear grower in America were offering their version of a crate label. Spanish Senoritas, landscapes, ocean scenes, and even Santa Claus graced the sides of crates through the years. Very early examples are found with more romantic themes, featuring cupids and portraits of very finely dressed ladies.

The size and the delicacy of fruit and vegetables determined the size of the crate in which it would be packaged. For example, tomatoes and grapes could not be stacked as high as lemons or oranges.

Therefore, they were packed on long narrow “lug boxes.” Grape and tomato labels will be about 5” x 14” inches in size; apple and orange labels are normally 10” x 11,” lemon labels 9” x 12”, pears 8” x 10” and standard vegetable labels are 5” x 7” or 7” x 9”. NOTE: Reproduction labels will often not conform to these size specifications.

A poll taken in 1918 showed that it was more important to attract the male wholesaler than the housewife. As a result you will find that labels printed after 1918 tend to show a more seductive female form than those issued earlier. It is also interesting to note that most labels were designed to be appreciated as “art,” and seldom, if ever, had anything to do with the content of the crate.

The price of a label is determined by rarity, age, condition and graphic appeal. Labels are still rather easy to find as they were printed on acid free paper, and made to withstand the abrasion and dampness of the refrigerated railroad cars that carried them to their destination. Many of the more common labels can be purchased in the $3 to $5 range. The “girlie” labels from such companies as, “Sweet Patootie,” “Glamor Girl” and “Buxom Melons,” will run you $6 to $10.

California labels from the early 1920s can be found from $15 to $25.

Two of the leading sellers in the Patriotic category are the labels from “Lincoln Brand Oranges” than can be found in the area of $8 to $12, and “Eagle Peaches”, from Georgia which can set you back as much as $35.

Until next time,


Linda Hamer Kennett is a professional liquidation consultant specializing in down-sizing for seniors and the liquidation of estates and may be reached at 317-429-7887 or