Early labels were printed using stone lithography.

Early labels were printed using stone lithography.

The story of the ­citrus label industry is similar to that of the apple, peach, or pear labels. Orange growers and packers, for example, needed to establish a brand identity just as much as the apple grower, as soon as shipments to distant markets became feasible.

William Wolfskill, an orange grower with 17,000 trees near what is now the Union Station neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles, is credited with the first successful shipment of oranges to eastern markets in 1877. Although this shipment took a full month to reach St. Louis, the oranges arrived in good shape and were quickly sold to willing buyers. The floodgates for citrus shipments were thereby opened, and within 30 years, California orange growers were shipping ten million boxes of fruit annually to eastern U.S. markets. And the need for a distinctive identity became a key part of the sales strategy of the ­rapidly proliferating numbers of growers, packers and shippers—in much the same manner as apple ­growers, packers, and shippers embraced the concept.

The first citrus brands were placed directly onto the end of each wooden crate. This method was time-consuming and highly impractical as the number of boxes increased exponentially. Paper labels were the answer, and the various packing houses each ­developed unique labels describing the various ­qualities of the packed fruit. Sunkist, which operated in both California and Arizona, had over 250 packing houses under its control—and each house had five or six labels. Buyers soon learned how to read the labels so that they would instantly recognize that the Rooster, Ramona, or Fido brands, for example, were the best that a particular packing house could offer. And, again like the apple labels, fine graphic designs by some of the finest graphic artists of the time became highly prized.

Many early citrus labels were produced using the stone lithographic process. The first widely used printing method is known as lithography, or "printing from stone." This art/craft was discovered and originally developed between 1796 and 1800 by Alois Senefelder in Munich, Germany, and became the basis for nearly all commercial multicolor printing around the world in the century that followed, reaching eastern America around 1820 and California in the early 1850s. Essentially, lithography is the art of "chemical printing" usually using a flat, polished piece of porous Bavarian limestone, three to five inches thick. The process is based on the natural repellencies between grease, ink and water.

The first step was the application of the image onto the stone. Prior to the mid-1920s, artworks (or "sketches") were hand-drawn (in reverse!) directly on the stone using a pencil-shaped stick made of soap, tallow, shellac, wax, or lampblack. The pressure with which the artist drew on the coarsely "grained" stone established the intensity of each color. The harder he pushed, the deeper and more broad the color. Light pressure would leave thinner areas, and a background color could then be seen through the superimposed one and thereby allow the solid blocks of colors to "bleed" into one another. A different stone was necessary for each ­different color to be printed.

Once the images were set down on the mirror-smooth surface, a small amount of the greasy markings would penetrate slightly into the stone itself. The surrounding surface areas would then be etched with a mild acid solution, leaving a microscopically raised impression and "graining" the surface to allow water to hydrate the stone itself around the image area. Since the stone was porous, once the stone was made wet, no ink would stick to the ungreased areas. Water and ink were applied successively, the ink sticking only to the finely raised, greasy areas from which an impression could be taken.

There were other ways to transfer the desired image to the stone, but whatever method was used, the work was tedious, time-consuming, and required strong artistic skills. As a result, many of these early stone lithography citrus labels are illustrations of exceptional craftsmanship and beauty. As demand increased, newer, speedier methods were developed and extensively used in all sorts of full-color printing by the early 1900s when label art reached its peak.

Citrus, like apple, labels went through various phases of design as each packing house grew or jockeyed for position in the marketplace. Many ­California labels reflected the Spanish heritage of the state, others were inspired by the area’s climate, and still others celebrated Indian, floral, bird, historical, or even political themes. And it is safe to say that many of the now highly ­collectible California citrus labels have unique stories to tell.

The wooden orange crate, along with the wooden apple box, disappeared rapidly after World War II as the replacement cardboard box became the ­industry standard. However, citrus label collectors are just as passionate as apple label collectors in acquiring these unique graphic pieces of fine design and American history.