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Of Oranges, Sunsets, and Sailboats


I’ve fallen in love. No, not with another person, but with the colorful labels on crates of oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines from Florida in the first half of the 20th century. Over the last few years, I’ve purchased prints of some of these labels which I framed to hang in my kitchen. But I’d like to begin a real collection of them. What can you tell me about the history of these labels? And what’s the best way to begin my collection of actual labels?




Vintage citrus labels are one of the fun items to collect. They brighten up any room with their glowing colors and cheery scenes of sunny Florida. Collecting them isn’t that difficult and will send you on a hunt for them for years to come.

Spanish explorers in the late 15th century brought small citrus trees to Florida because lemons and limes were a part of the Spanish diet. When Ponce de Leon explored Florida in 1513, he brought along citrus seeds, planting them near what’s now St. Augustine. The seeds thrived in Florida’s warm climate and sandy soil.

But it wasn’t until three centuries later that homesteaders planted citrus trees around their homesteads. Eventually, some began selling the fruit locally or transporting it by coastal steamers which collected barrels of fruit at various ports along Florida’s coasts. Once the railroads began to expand, Florida fruit growers began to ship their produce to emerging new markets throughout North America.

It was the coming of the railroads that encouraged the creation of those colorful, imaginative labels. Oranges had been grown for a long time in Florida and even longer in California, but it wasn't until the completion of railroad spur lines that it became possible to ship the perishable citrus fruit nationwide. By 1875, growers began using
90-pound wooden crates. Eager to capture the attention of wholesale buyers in Eastern and Midwestern produce terminals, the growers began pasting eye-catching paper labels to the ends of the crates.

Originally, the growers packed their oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines in wooden crates branded or stenciled with their company identification. But once color lithography came into common use, the fruit growers followed their California competitors and began applying colorful labels to their shipping crates.

Old-time produce markets were crowded places, so having labels with eye-appealing, interesting artwork was a must. It was these same rich colors and striking designs that grabbed the attention of citrus buyers

Artists and lithographers designed labels to differentiate between different growers. Beginning in 1904, they collaborated to help buyers remember and identify their brands. The peak years for labels ran between 1920 and 1950 but by World War II, growers began using cardboard boxes instead of wooden crates which ended the use of the colorful labels.

Label art changed with the times. Fruit crate art can be divided into three periods—Naturalism, from 1885 to 1920, Advertising, from 1920 to 1935, and Commercial Art, from 1935 to 1955. In Florida, early labels seemed designed to appeal especially to housewives, with pastel-tinted illustrations depicting flowers or babies. Following these came label illustrations showing Indians, planes, trains, hunting scenes, and pretty women, all directed towards the all-male buyers at Northern auctions.

In 1915, the general public became aware of vitamins and the health benefits of the orange's Vitamin C content appeared in label art. Labels from the Advertising era promoted the use of orange juice for health, with names like "Juicy-o," "Juice King," and "Full o' Juice.”

Artists depicted a wide range of subjects, including beautiful women in seductive poses such as the woman in a two-piece bathing suit sitting seductively on the beach on the label for FLO Indian River brand. Sebring’s LADYE brand portrayed a scantily dressed woman reclining by the side of a pond. One grower even depicted his mistress on his label.

The art work on the labels depicted the romance of Florida with scenic views of orange groves, orange trees, and the oranges, themselves. Sunsets and sailboats emphasized the fun potential of a Florida vacation. The Golden Sunset brand portrayed palm trees and a warm, glowing sunset along with images of grapefruit and oranges while Groves brand showed a azure blue sea with a sailboat and orange groves. The Dixie Delight brand label depicted a couple in elegant evening attire ballroom dancing. Both consumers and buyers got the message about the good life in Florida, which helped to boost tourism.

Label artists also employed images of Florida flowers. The Gardenia Brand adorned Jacksonville’s W.H. Clark Fruit label. The Kissimmee Citrus Grower’s Association used the Florida Cowboy brand that showed a cowboy riding a bucking bronco. Citrus growers and shipper’s children, wives, and family members often appeared as subjects on their labels.

Artists also created labels depicting Florida wildlife, including birds, alligators, and fish. Brooksville’s Blue Heron Brand portrayed the majestic Florida bird, and the Jay Bird brand displayed a bluejay. The Bull Frog brand used a plump bull frog on its label.

Citrus labels for Indian River’s Harvey’s Groves, for example, also promoted fertile growing regions. The Polk O Dot Brand created a label with a golden-haired child from the Polk County Citrus Exchange.

Native Americans were also well represented. The Highland Belle brand label showed a Seminole princess while the Osceola brand depicted two warriors paddling a canoe.

But labels weren’t all show and beauty. They also served another purpose. All prime fresh and Grade #1 fruit labels had a blue background, and all Grade #2 or lesser labels had a red label.

Using the Internet, it’s relatively easy to find labels for sale. There are also citrus label shows where a beginning collector can get an overview of this unique collectible. Since there’s a wide range of labels on the market, it’s very important for a collector to learn all about them before buying any. 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 while an rare original label in very good condition may sell for hundreds, or even thousands of dollars.

Essentially, citrus labels have become so popular because of the nostalgia that takes collectors back to simpler days of Florida’s past.

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