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.
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.