This guide is a basic introduction to citrus labels. Examples of labels shown here came from the collection of Gary Monroe and can be seen in Special Collections at the George A. Smathers Library.
Citrus labels were a form of commercial or advertising art that existed from the late 19th century until World War II. The citrus label industry emerged with the growth of railroads, which led to citrus fruits being shipped around the country, and growers needing a way to differentiate their products both to distributors and to consumers. This led to the advent of citrus labels, which not only identified products that would otherwise be nearly identical, but also served to draw attention to the products and create a recognizable brand. The labels were applied to the ends of the wooden crates which contained the citrus, and the crates would be auctioned off to retailers and wholesalers in the Northeast. To catch the eye of these buyers, these labels were often elaborately-drawn and featured dazzling imagery. Growers also used pre-made or "stock" labels, with a standard image, to which their own brand and name was added.
There were two main varieties of citrus labels, corresponding to the United States' two major citrus-growing regions: California labels and Florida labels. Each had their own unique style, which you shall see as you navigate through this guide. In short, California labels were larger than their Florida counterparts and sometimes influenced by Hollywood. They were often more complex and cinematic. Lithographers in California dominated label-making--producing labels for the Washington State apple industry, California wineries and citrus producers, as well as labels for orange and grapefruit growers in Texas and Florida; but St. Louis, Nashville, Baltimore, and other areas also had printers who specialized in making labels.
Citrus labels saw their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. With World War II demanding more materials, the wooden crates were replaced with cheaper and more readily-available cardboard boxes and names and labels could be directly printed onto the cardboard. This reduced the need for paper labels. Despite the end of the war in 1945, cardboard remained the primary shipping medium for citrus fruits. This development, combined with the rise of orange juice concentrate and direct-to-consumer selling, also lessened the need for fancy labels, leading to the rapid decline of citrus labeling. Today, these historic relics are still valued by collectors, who assign various values to them based on size, year, origin, and rarity.
Text and Design by Jason Zappulla.