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Historic labels sold oranges -- and the California lifestyle

March 27, 2011 |  6:39 pm

Citrus crate labels started out as advertising but have emerged as art and a peek into California's past.

Packinghouses often created three different labels: one for high-grade fruit, one for mid-grade and one for the bottom of the barrel — citrus that was small, poorly textured or off-color. The fruit in this last category didn't necessarily taste bad, but it looked bad. Growers sometimes chose scruffy dogs or ugly old ladies to represent these grades. One Villa Park brand, "Camouflage," carried the slogan: "The Quality is Inside." Another brand, "Mutt," proclaimed: "Not much for looks, but ripe, sweet & juicy."

Label art generally falls into three basic design eras, according to Gordon McClelland, author of "California Orange Box Labels." Those are "Naturalistic," from about 1885-1915; "Advertising," from 1915-35; and "Commercial Art," from 1935-55. The early style often depicted awe-inspiring Southern California scenes such as snow-capped mountains, pristine citrus groves and broad beaches dotted with sun umbrellas. Others reflected the area's Mexican and Spanish heritage, depicting cowboys, Indians and California missions.

These idyllic scenes were selling more than just oranges and lemons; they were selling California. "I'm sure that many people made their decision to move west as they were eating their navel oranges and saw the beautiful scenery on the box," said Tom Spellman, president of the Citrus Label Society.

Even back then, advertisers knew that sex sells. "Some labels showed pictures of women that bordered on being racy," Spellman said. The Siren brand from Borden Fruit Co. in Anaheim showed a sultry blond with a low-cut neckline and gaudy gold necklace. The Tesoro label from Bradford Bros Inc. in Placentia depicted a skimpily clad pirate babe.

Read the full story here.

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--Allison Bell

Photos: California Heritage Museum

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