The Florida citrus history became a major part of the state's land development in the 1870s, 1880s.
Originally, the grove owners would pick the citrus and put them in large wood barrels, and then they would use a branding iron to stamp into the wood to identify it was their grove and their property.
The next process of identifying the citrus on the crates was what they call a stencil. They would use a metal stencil and then either ink or paint, or whatever, right onto the wood crate. Interestingly enough, (the McMullen family is) credited with designing and developing some of the first wood crates right here in Pinellas back in the 1880s.
(The use of crates instead of barrels began because) it was easier to ship and pack and transport. Your major means of transportation back in the 1880s, '90s, would have been steamboat and water transportation to the Northern markets. Of course, the railroads were developing and they did have railroads, so they would also put those onto boxcars and transport them by train.
The use of printed citrus labels on wood crates dates to just after l900 to the l950s. They used a stone lithograph to make the early, early paper labels and then they went to other means. Lithography is an art of "chemical printing" from a flat polished stone and was a popular method of printing in the 1800s in the United States. The Schmidt Lithograph Co. in California printed some of the first Florida citrus labels. They were of extra fine detail and quality and are among some of the most prized labels known. These may have been printed as early as 1905.
The Knights (Joe Knight Sr., and his son, Joe Knight Jr.), who owned Sans Souci Groves in Elfers, were a major citrus-growing family for two generations. And in the 1970s and '80s and even '90s, these guys would attend the Florida Citrus Commission annual meetings over in Winter Haven and they would take examples of their labels and they would trade. And that's basically where most of the early Florida citrus label collectors came from. They were citrus growers who just enjoyed swapping with each other.
So many of these labels disappeared because they were limited production anyway, and the growers would go to a new label or a new design and then they would quit using the old design. After they ran out, that was the end of them. Now, some of the early packinghouses did have an abundant supply of some of the labels. So that's where a lot of the more common labels can still be found on the marketplace, because there were huge numbers that survived in some of the packinghouses. But so many packinghouses either burned down or were destroyed by storms or whatever, that these labels are just virtually nonexistent from the 1920s and '30s.
The 1950s and '60s labels, a lot of those labels are still quite common and quite easy to go on the Internet and find for little or no money at all. Some of the rarest labels, that's the only place you're going to find an example, on a crate that somebody has still had up in the attic and now all of a sudden an eBayer finds this crate and sticks it on the Internet. I've bought some wonderful examples that I don't have anywhere but on a crate.
I enjoy part of the history that goes with some of these labels, like the Fort Harrison, of course, was an actual Seminole War fort in Clearwater. Just to have a picture of Fort Harrison with an Indian creeping around is a great label in my opinion.
And then there are the Clearwater Passway (the Million Dollar Causeway) labels. One of these W.G. Blair labels shows the vintage cars on the bridge dating from the late 1920s, and then there's another label that's very similar, but it shows cars dating from the mid- to late-'30s.
So a lot of labels you can date by the subject, just like the "Flo" labels popular with the Indian River citrus growers on the east coast. You have a number of women in swimsuits in the Flo labels.
(The bright colors and artistic designs used on the labels) was marketing. It was all psychological marketing tools for the Northern market. What will the bidders at the auction house - what will attract them to my oranges over the next guy? The Florida Grower Press in Tampa printed a large, large percentage of the labels. But a lot of the labels were also printed out in California during the Depression
The end of an era of Florida citrus labels started with World War II, as material became expensive and scarce. By l960, the brown, corrugated cartons or containers replaced the wood crates. The corrugated containers were much cheaper. Without wood crates, a need for the labels as advertising no longer existed.
"Some of the rarest labels, that's the only place you're going to find an example, on a crate that somebody has still had up in the attic ..."
Don Ball, 66
- Fifth generation Florida pioneer
- Owner of American Heritage Investments Inc. since 1973
- Former district executive and field director for Boy Scouts of America, Pinellas Area Council
- Member of the Largo Area Historical Society
- Past president of the Safety Harbor Historical Museum
- Past president of the Rotary Club of Largo
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