Crate labels

Continuing the story of commercial art forms in popular culture that started with tie art this morning (“Most unusual ties”, here): the art of crate labels, for shipping fruit, vegetables, and other foodstuffs in wooden crates, on the railroad, from where they were produced to where they are consumed. Along with the long-distance distribution system (with its major hub in Chicago) made possible by the railroads came schemes of brand-naming and long-distance advertising for the products. most notably in the colorful labels (designed largely by unknown artists) on the crates (the labels are now collectors’ items); the heyday of the labels was in the early 20th century.

Two satisfying products from Louisiana (in #2, you should focus on the left side, with the Tabasco sauce bottle and its flanking shrimp):



Both labels show the products, artfully displayed (the eggplants in #1 are especially luscious), and #2 has a scenic shot as well. Both show the products in a three-part arrangement that seems to me to be subliminally sexual: penis and flanking testicles. (Sexual texts and subtexts are very common in crate labels.)

Three themes so far: the actual products (which, surprisingly, turn out not to be essential to the labels); sexual texts and subtexts; and scenery (not always directly relevant: fruits and vegetables from California were routinely shown with San Francisco scenes (the Golden Gate Bridge was especially popular), despite the fact that the food was grown in the Central Valley or Southern Califiornia.

But wait, there’s more!

To start with, there are the brand names, many of which are slangy. In an earlier posting (“Suggestive”, from 2/14/12) I looked at two suggestive brand names:¬†Hustler brand California Bartletts [pears] and Gay Johnny brand Texas vegetables. Hustler was before ‘prostitute’ time, but well within the ‘con man, grifter’ zone, so although the label showed a kid hustling newspapers energetically, the name was not entirely innocent. Similarly with Gay Johnny (another kid), from a time when the ‘happy’ sense coexisted fairly easily with the ‘homosexual’ sense.

Cute kids — often sexualized, as they have been since Victorian times — are a recurrent theme. Here’s a fairly crudely drawn label for Apple Kids brand apples from Washington State, with scenery, a big apple, and two grinning boys, verging on soft kiddy porn — the boy on the right presenting his crotch, the boy on the left flagrantly displaying his butt (with a slingshot in his back pocket):


Women are routinely sexualized; they’re pinups, offering their wares for the delectation of watching men. Usually restrained, but sometimes brazen, as in this ad for Buxom brand melons (melons! give me a break!):


Another theme is living things: birds (Blue Bird, Flamingo, Kentucky Cardinal, Swan, Blue Goose (especially nice silhouette)),


animals (Bunny, Deer Valley, Camel, Bulldog, Jaguar, Whippet), flowers (Daisy, Sunflower, Poppy, Crocus, Thistle). These appeal to people on the basis of their positive associations — beauty, strength, cuteness, comforting familiarity, intriguing exoticness — without, for the most part, veering into sexual territory or touching on the actual properties of the fruits and vegetables in question: Blue Goose is a brand of pears, for example.

Tucked into this category is my favorite so far, King Pelican brand iceberg lettuce:


A pelican, yes, but not just any pelican: one whose body is a head of iceberg lettuce. Wonderfully done. (By the way, iceberg lettuce here in California is a totally different food from iceberg lettuce that’s been shipped across the country. There are down sides to long-distance shipping.)

Finally, there’s the race thing, from a time when casual racism just floated in the air, so that black folks could be depicted as grinning and servile. The brand names tell the story: Ole Black Joe, Oh!Mama, Black Boy, Banjo, Louisiana Lou, Smoky Jim’s, Aunty, Topsy. Mostly for Louisiana products, in particular yams:


Yams for Mister Charlie.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: