History and Stuff

Fruit crate labels

The lost art of 'agri-lithography'

by Chris Whitten

Coon Sweet Potatoes
Coon sweet potatoes
from Leonville, Louisiana (9" x 9")
click for a larger image

printed on t-shirts and other items
email it as a postcard

Included below:

  1. The story of 'agri-lithography'

  2. T-shirts and other merchandise

  3. Photos and Web links

  4. Related books

The story of 'agri-lithography'

Before the 1940s, fruits and vegetables were generally sold right out of the crate.

This was before we had massive supermarkets and luxuriously long produce aisles. The local grocer would sell you your apple from the same pine box that the grower packed it in.

Because customers saw their crates, fruit growers learned to decorate them -- elaborately. Colorful, eye-catching, imaginative labels were pasted onto the ends of the boxes. It became a form of poster art. The remnants of that art form -- the elaborate labels -- are now collected and treasured.

For more of the story, read on.

Railroads create a national marketplace

Fruit labels like these date back to the 1870s and 1880s, when railroads first connected the country from coast to coast.

Before the railroads, most fruit simply wasn't shipped very far. If you lived in New England like my ancestors, you didn't see many Washington apples or Florida oranges.

The transcontinental railroads changed the produce industry forever. Fresh fruits and vegetables from across the country became an everyday reality for the average American.

As fruits and vegetables became more readily available across the country, the industry became more competitive. Growers had to find ways to attract customers' attention.

Sierra Vista Oranges
Sierra Vista oranges
from Porterville, California (10" x 11")
click for a larger image

click here to email as a postcard

Appleton Apples
Appleton apples
from Watsonville, California (9.5" x 10.25")
click for a larger image

click here to email as a postcard

Touchet Apples
Touchet Valley apples
from Dayton, Washington (9" x 10.5")
click for a larger image

Competition inspires creativity

To create their fruit labels, the growers collaborated with lithographic print shops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities. The artists were often German immigrants who had brought their trade with them from the old world.

The artists worked with the growers to create unique graphic designs. Idealized views of the countryside or the farmers' orchards were a common theme. Some of the label art was even more personal, featuring the grower's pet, sweetheart, or child.

The artists sketched the intricate details onto fine Bavarian limestone -- a time consuming process done entirely by hand. Finally, the stones were inked and transferred onto the paper labels.

The era abruptly ends

By the mid-1950s, the era of "agri-lithography" was over.

New mass media changed the face of advertising. Large supermarket chains and produce wholesalers reduced the role of independent growers' brand names. Cheaper printing methods replaced the time-intensive stone lithography. And, significantly, the sturdy wooden boxes that the labels were pasted on were replaced with pre-printed cardboard boxes.

All these factors came together within the space of a few years. Abruptly, the growers' elaborate poster art became obsolete.

Fortunately the labels weren't all destroyed. Caches of unused labels were squirreled away here and there in farmhouses, packing sheds, warehouses, and print shops.

For colorful t-shirts, coffee mugs, mousepads, and other items printed with some of these labels, click to

To e-mail one of these labels as a virtual postcard, click to

For photos, Web links, and books and more related to the history of fruit crate labels, click to History and Stuff