A new postcard book published by the Canadian Kelowna Museums offers a nostalgic window into the evolution of British Columbia’s orchard industry. Apple Box Label Postcard Book: British Columbia Vintage Views, traces roughly 50 years of apple box labels.
"From the beginning of the area’s industrial scale orchard production around World War I and through to the 1960s, arguably the most significant agent in selling British Columbia apples was the box label," writes Kelowna Museums Executive Director Wayne Wilson.
"Always brightly colored, always bold in design, often unique in their graphic elements, these labels now help us trace the changing face of the tree fruit industry. They also help us track the evolving network of packing houses, cooperatives, and shippers that function today under the single operation—Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative."
Wilson, an historian, remembers these labels from his own grandparents’ orchard in Oliver, British Columbia. "Even as a child, I was fascinated by these colorful labels," he says. "Now, here I am more than forty years later, still drawn to the labels."
Almost all of the province’s apple box label art came out of lithographic houses in Vancouver. Little is known about the artists who designed them.
The first apple box labels used in the area date to approximately World War I, and were almost certainly based on the experience of packing houses in the United States’ Pacific Northwest. Only a couple of these early labels have survived. The richest era for labels was the 1920s and 1930s, when Vancouver lithographic houses churned out dozens of designs.
During those two decades, there was continued construction of packing houses owned or managed by cooperatives, individuals, or independent companies, each competing for the burgeoning and lucrative Canadian and foreign markets for fresh fruit, Wilson said. Strengthening this rush was the advent of cold storage technology in the 1920s, which extended the selling season for fresh fruit into winter.
The Depression in the 1930s and the onset of World War II tempered some of this development, and growers were increasingly pushing for more consolidated operations in their cooperative packing houses. By the 1950s, corporate consolidation and centralization of industry in general were well under way worldwide, and British Columbia’s tree fruit industry was caught up in this shift. The smaller and more scattered packing houses gradually closed.
There were dozens of different designs over the years: landscape themes, pioneer themes, cultural connections, and standard letter-logo types, noted Wilson. Perhaps the most exotic of these are labels like Pyramid Brand from Penticton and Ogopogo Brand from Vernon.
Some of the labels, with images such as Vikings, sailing ships, sea monsters, and pyramids, would seem to have little connection to the area. Cultural connection themes rely on strong ethnic symbols, particularly those from the British Isles, such as castles, thistles, John Bull, terrier dogs, and British Lion. In the 1911 and 1921 Census of Canada, roughly 80 percent of the Okanagan population was British by birth or British by descent, and the British Isles were the largest foreign market for B.C. apples at the time.
Paper labels continued to be used until the late 1950s, when a provincial Royal Commission on the tree fruit industry recommended selling all B.C. fruit under a single unifying image. This recommendation came just as packing houses began to use cardboard boxes to pack fruit, according to Wilson. By the mid 1960s, virtually all B.C. apples were shipped in cardboard boxes, and the brightly colored apple box labels became artifacts of the industry and collector’s items.
The book sells for $12.95 Can., and is available by calling (250)763-0433 or at www.kelownamuseums.ca.