Paper labels from 1880-1930, collectively referred to as “Crate Art”, are a unique form of American Folk Art. Originally designed to be glued to the ends of wooden crates to identify produce during shipping, the graphically attractive labels are still attainable at a reasonable price, and worthy of consideration for your “items to watch for” list.
Stone lithography, used on the earliest labels, was a very involved process requiring a separate stone for each color used. By combining five primary tones, as many as fifty different colors could be produced. In 1930 the lithography process switched from stone to metal plates. The examples before 1930 that are the ones that are of interest to collectors.
Labels used on old cigar boxes were popular with collectors as early as the Victorian era. By 1870 there were thousands of brands of cigars being produced in the United States, providing a wealth of labels to choose from. Examples from this time frame featured up to twenty different colors on a single label. Embossed designs with gold highlights are a common find. Many of the cigar box labels from 1880-1920 feature images of popular political figures, with Lincoln being a favorite. Sports themes and hobbies are also prevalent with gentleman playing golf, cards or checkers.
Fruit crate art has increased in popularity over the past decade. The fruit and vegetable growers of California led the way with this form of advertising in the late 1800’s. Their use of colorful lithograph labels was an instant hit with the public, sending the sale of produce soaring. It is no wonder that their competitors in the southern and mid-western states took notice and soon followed suite. By the early 1900’s all of the over two thousand citrus, apple and pear grower in America were offering their version of a crate label. Spanish Senoritas, landscapes, ocean scenes, and even Santa’s graced the sides of crates through the years. Very early examples are found with more romantic themes, featuring cupids and portraits of very finely dressed ladies.