Labels Prove a Crate Success : Collectibles: Growers used to use labels to identify their produce. Today, those labels are decorator items.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The gorgeous, lush and immaculate Southern California of memory was formed in large part by a most unusual phenomenon: orange crate labels.

Around 1890, as growers began in earnest to ship their orange crops east, they struggled to differentiate their produce from that of other farmers in the state.

Although consumers almost never saw the labels, which were used on the side of wooden shipping crates, distributors did. Labels were made as spectacular as possible so the distributor would remember the orchard's name and place repeat orders.

Orange crate labels were lithographed with acid-etched granite plates, a technique that produced long-lasting, exquisitely colored pictures.

Robert Taaffe, second vice president of the Citrus Label Society, said there are three distinct historic periods of labels.

"The first is the natural stage," Taaffe said. "These showed groves, mountains and western scenes." This period ran from about 1885 to 1920.

From 1920-35, label artists used an advertising approach, Taaffe said, and the primary focus was the healthy aspects of the orange and its juice.

"Then from 1930 to 1955, you saw the commercial-art type of labels: big slanted letters and bright colors," Taaffe said.

But when cardboard boxes came into wide use in the mid '50s, "that was about the end of the labels," he said.

Collectors can find common labels priced from $1 to $5, better specimens at up to $50 and rarities as high as $2,000.

"One of the rarest has only about six copies in existence now," Taaffe said. The label is a picture of Uncle Sam holding a cluster of oranges and saying, "I Grow These Myself." It was printed in 1898 and used by a Riverside grower with no real connection to the U.S. government.

If you're interested in collecting, trading or just looking at citrus labels, the Citrus Label Society is holding a meeting today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Sunkist Headquarters, 14130 Riverside Dr., Sherman Oaks. Admission is free. Labels will be displayed, and you can buy and sell.

The society meets monthly; call (714) 792-9021 for a schedule.

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