Although orange crate labels were once an important part of the citrus business, they are now important only to collectors. Growers such as Dr. William Burgess Wall, one of Tustin’s earliest with 40 acres of oranges and his own packing house by 1892, soon found the baskets and barrels customarily used to ship fruit were unsatisfactory for sending oranges east by railroad car. After some experimentation, they developed a wooden orange crate. Wooden orange crates were used until they were replaced by cardboard boxes in the ‘50s. Manufactured in a rectangular shape measuring 12 x 12 x 27, crates were easy to handle and could be quickly loaded into a rail car. Stenciled labels were used on the crates at first, but failed to appeal to the wholesalers who purchased the oranges. As a result, a colorful 10 x 11 inch label which attracted attention and promoted the product came into use.
Designed by commercial artists, most of these labels were produced in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Gordon T. McClelland and Jay T. Last, authors of “California Orange Box Labels,” estimate that there were 8,000 label designs. With adaptations this resulted in 15,000 different labels. McClelland and Last developed classifications for this vast number of labels.
The years from 1880 until after World War I are categorized as the naturalist period. During this time labels featured flowers, birds, animals and scenic views with a few historic themes. In 1920 labels began to stress the health benefits of oranges and orange juice. From 1930 until the mid-1950s when the cardboard box took over, label designs featured graphic art with more lettering than illustrations. Early labels were produced by stone lithography. Later photo composition and off set printing were used. Interestingly, few artists signed their designs.Orange crate labels gain value with age. When the cardboard box became popular, packing houses were left with thousands of unused labels. As collectibles these are available at a nominal cost. Since it virtually impossible to remove a label attached to a crate, labels from the early years are rare. For example, the Cal-Oro label used by Santa Ana Tustin Mutual Citrus Association in the 1920s (an excellent example of art deco with a vibrant butterfly against a black background) is cataloged at $150. Their Tustana label from the 1930s (a palomino stallion posed against a black background) is valued at $45.
The Tustin Area Museum (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 to 2) displays labels used by Tustin packing houses.