Collecting Vintage Citrus Labels, A Nostalgic Florida Art
Years ago, wooden crates were the primary method of packaging Florida citrus, adorned with brightly colored labels and these days collectible items for those who desire nostalgic Florida art.
As a Florida native, I am culturally drawn to anything related to citrus – the vibrant orange, yellow and pink colors, the scent of orange blossoms or even the simplest pleasure of peeling a fresh, juicy Florida orange. Walking through a citrus grove is like taking a stroll into my past. There’s nothing quite like the sun soaked view of a Florida orange grove. It’s both familiar and magically intoxicating.
Years ago, wooden crates were the primary method of packaging and shipping citrus, adorned with brightly colored labels. Pasted on these wooden boxes, 10” X 11” labels or 5 ½” X 11” strips were placed on crates to identify the brand. Vintage citrus label art has become a passion, hobby and even a business for many avid fans.
Citrus originally came to Florida courtesy of Spanish explorers. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought citrus to the New World. But Ponce de Leon sailed with Columbus and is credited as the first European to explore Florida in 1513, bringing with him citrus seeds and planting them near (what has become) the settlement of St. Augustine. Spaniards and native Indians continued to grow and cultivate the fruit, while citrus thrived in Florida’s warm climate and sandy soil.
But it took another 300 years before citrus became an industry. By then, newly arriving homesteaders were relocating to the state, planting citrus around the family homestead. Pioneer entrepreneurs began selling the fruit, then bringing it to a common location to be transported by steamships. Steamers collected barrels of fruit at various ports along Florida’s coasts and waterways. As the railroad industry became established, it was able to ship to emerging, new markets throughout North America.
Initially, fruit was packed in wooden crates branded or stenciled with the shipper’s identification. Floridians were then introduced to lithographic printing while observing California competitors using colorful labels. Sellers quickly learned that marketing was the key to successful sales. From 1904 up until World War II, citrus labels were designed to differentiate amongst the competition for a particular grower or shipper. Artists and lithographers collaborated to help buyers remember and identify with their brand. The peak years for labels were between 1920-1950 but by WW II, cardboard boxes replaced wood boxes, ending the vintage label era.
Through label design, artists depicted a wide range of subjects. Beautiful women were popular. Lakeland’s Sun Made brand used a smiling blonde woman. The McLeod Fruit Company branded The Belle of Silver River depicting a woman in a bathing suit sitting at the river’s edge. Sebring’s LADYE brand portrayed a scantily dressed woman reclining by the side of a pond. One grower portrayed his mistress on a label.
The art form furthered the romance of Florida with sunsets, sailboats and “good, healthy living” themes. Scenic views of Florida with orange groves, orange trees, treasure chests filled with oranges furthered the image of the fruit. The Golden Sunset brand portrayed palm trees and a warm, glowing sunset. Consumers and buyers were getting the message about the good life in Florida, also boosting tourism.
Label artists also used Florida flowers. The Gardenia Brand and the Azalea Brand adorned Jacksonville’s W.H. Clark Fruit label. The Kissimmee Citrus Grower’s Association used the Florida Cowboy brand. Citrus grower’s and shipper’s children, wives and family members were often used as subjects, personalizing the family brand.
Themes of wildlife were popular with birds, alligators and even fish. Brooksville’s Blue Heron Brand portrayed the Florida heron and Frostproof’s Ibis Brand displayed the pink-billed white bird. St. Petersburg’s Milne-O’Berry Packing Company developed a label with the classic tarpon called the Silver King Brand.
Indians became popular themes. The Seminole brand was used by a Sanford grower and a Haines City operator used the Red Skin Brand.
Even growing regions were advertised. Indian River’s Harvey’s Groves, still in business, depicted a fertile and luscious growing region. The Polk O Dot Brand, created a label with a golden haired child from the Polk County Citrus Exchange.
Labels were not only colorful marketing pieces, but they were utilitarian. Blue backgrounds were used on all labels determined to be prime fresh, Grade #1 fruit, and a red label represented a #2 or lesser grade.
Citrus label collectors range from the serious to the nostalgic. To begin a collection, one can peruse and shop online or attend antique shows, featuring labels for sale. Citrus label shows are another way to get an overview of the unique art. There is a huge variety of Florida citrus labels, so plenty to discover while having fun with collecting samples. In addition to original labels there are many prints on the market. While not original, these prints preserve the unique art of the citrus label. Labels range in price anywhere from $5-$10 for a basic print reproduction, or even a basic original will command hundreds, or perhaps thousands of dollars for highly valued, rare, one-of-kind, original labels.
Several colleges have prized collections that can give you an overview of the variety. Florida Southern College has an on-line collection primarily donated by Jim Ellis, a private collector. Jim grew up in a wooden house within an orange grove and spent his career in the industry, along with 25 years in the citrus packinghouse business. In the 1970’s he began his collection as colleagues and friends began sharing their newly discovered vintage labels. The University of Florida also boasts a major citrus label collection.
So, what is it about vintage labels that fascinate us? Many believe that the nostalgic art and beauty take us back to a simpler time while capturing a retrospective of Florida’s past.
For me, my newly acquired, yet humble label collection is another reminder of my past and present love affair with Florida.
To receive Authentic Florida’s free ENEWs, featuring travel and living updates, delivered weekly, sign up on the home page Authentic Florida, voted Blog of the Year and Best Travel Blog at the Orlando Sunshine Awards.