Label Artists and Lithographers

Cock Robin

At least three dozen companies designed and printed crate labels for produce growers. “California Orange Box Labels: An Illustrated History” by Gordon McClelland and Jay Last (2003), listsĀ 19 lithographic firms headquartered in San Francisco, plus several firms in New York (including Rochester and Brooklyn), St. Louis, Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Detroit, and six inĀ Los Angeles:

  • Gilbert-Jones-Rugg Co.
  • Los Angeles Lithograph Co.
  • George Rice & Sons
  • Smith-Barnes Co.
  • Union Lithograph Co.
  • Western Lithograph Co.

Stage Coach

Here’s a sampling of the San Francisco lithographic firms:

  • Carton Label Co.
  • H.S. Crocker Co.
  • Crocker-Union
  • Galloway Lithographing Co.
  • Olsen Brothers Litho Co.
  • Louis Roesch & Co.
  • Schmidt Lithography Co.
  • Schwabacher-Frey
  • Stecher-Traung Lithograph Co.

Western Queen

Although many of the commercial artists toiled in obscurity, the McClelland-Last book spotlights several of them and their creations. Artist Archie Vazquez of Western Lithograph Company designed the Western Queen and La Reina labels for the Rialto Orange Co.

Italian immigrant Othello Michetti’s designs, as an artist at Traung, included the Stage Coach label for the Riverside Orchards Packing Co. An “apple” drew an orange — designer Adrian Apple, to be precise — created the Highway label for the West Ontario Citrus Association. Carl Hague, whose career included a stretch at Schmidt Lithography Company, created the Redlands Chief label for Redlands Select Groves, featured on my “Citrus Town, Railroad Town, College Town” post.


Pennsylvania native J. Frank Derby, who had a long tenure with the Los Angeles Lithograph Company and Union Lithograph Company, created the Mercury label for Bryn Mawr Fruit Growers Association. Commercial artist Charlie Nittle, a Wisconsin transplant who worked at both Union and Western, designed the Hopi label for Redlands Heights Groves. Both images are featured in my “Citrus Town, Railroad Town, College Town” post.


“Label design,” McClelland-Last wrote, “was a high-pressure job. Staff artists were expected to work hard and produce quality work quickly.” The lithograph company was credited with each concept, because, “as is the case with most commercial art, few artists were allowed to sign their designs,” the book explains. Also, because of the high volume and swift turn-around demands of label design, many artists teamed up according to their specialities — namely, illustrators with lettering experts.

La Reina

Fancy Oranges


Crate Art

Locomotive Flyer

Orange County has the name, but not a corner on its signature crop. For decades, navels and valencias — along with scores of other fruits and vegetables — were grown all over Southern California.

Long ago, most of those groves and farms were plowed under and paved over, as the Golden State evolved from largely rural to overwhelmingly suburban. Although California remains rich in farmland, much of that fertile soil gave way to housing tracts, highways, schools and shopping centers, built to serve a ballooning population that now stands at 37 million.

Alta Loma Heights

Thankfully, traces of California’s rich agricultural history, including in the Inland Empire, have been preserved, if only on paper. Namely, colorful paper labels once pasted onto the wooden crates that carried crops from field to market. Keen-eyed folks — perhaps grocers and packing-house workers — recognized the labels as small works of art and salvaged them for posterity.

From the 1880s to the 1950s, these labels not only sold produce, but also told a story of American life through bright, saturated colors, bold lettering and striking graphics. They were billboards in miniature, powerful bits of advertising that not only created a unique brand identity for each grower, but also conjured in the public imagination the notion of California as a sun-drenched utopia, a land of plenty.

Legions of graphic artists, their names mostly lost in the passage of time, created these idealized scenes — linking oranges with Indian warriors, Greek mythology, Arab sheiks, Spanish senoritas, race cars, railroad locomotives, and other iconic imagery. The labels were rectangular and square, large and small — many of them 7″ x 9″, 9″ x 12″ or 10″ x 11″ — depending on the crop. Apples, for instance, required a bigger box and a bigger label than, say, green beans.

The advent of the cardboard box brought the crate-label era to a close. The growers’ logos and the type of crop were printed directly on the cardboard, and just like that, wooden crates and paper labels became obsolete.

For a moment, leave the 21st century behind and step back into the early 1900s, for this visual tour through the farms and groves of San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Sheik Camel

Sunshine Grove

Citrus Town, Railroad Town, College Town

In 1882, Wisconsin native E. J. Waite planted the first orange grove in Redlands. By the 1930s, there were 15,000 acres of citrus groves throughout the city, along with three packing houses to crate and ship the crop. Although most of the groves are now gone, at least one remains: near Almond Avenue, west of Alabama Street.

Redlands had long been a stop on the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, and those lines provided a swift means for growers to get their harvest to market. Redlands also was the eastern-most stop on the Pacific Electric Railway, the popular streetcar route that criss-crossed Southern California.

Originally part of Rancho San Bernardino — a Mexican land grant purchased by the Lugo family — Redlands incorporated in 1888. The city covers 36 square miles. It’s also well known for the University of Redlands, a private, 160-acre college founded by Baptists in 1907.

Redlands Chief

Sunny Cove

Half Moon



Hopi Indian