A small and exciting collection of British Columbia fruit box labels has been a part of the Kelowna Museum's exhibits and programs for decades. They have not, however, been displayed on their own - until now.
The planning of this special exhibit began in the Kelowna Museum (1983) with the review of our label collection. Photographs were taken, lests of brand names were made, a curatorial review of the design elements was begun. The first critical, academic study of the labels' design elements was done in 1985 and, armed with this and other data, the Kelowna Museum applied for and received a grant from the Museum Assistance Program (M.A.P.), National Museums of Canada, to prepare an exhibit plan.
Successful completion of the planning phase allowed us to submit a construction proposal to M.A.P. Its approval in 1988 insured that Selling The Harvest would be a reality.
While this exhibit is clearly a feast for the eyes, it offers much more. It is a study in perception of place, it is landscape interpretation, it is historical geography. Like books, the design elements in these labels can be read - and what an exciting story they tell.
Wayne Wilson, Exhibits Co-ordinator
Fruit box Labels are a dazzling, valuable, and largely unappreciated legacy of half a century of fruit growing in British Columbia. The practice of gluing fruit labels to the ends of fruit boxes probably originated in the United States shortly after a rail line linking both coasts was completed in the 1870s. Western fruit found a ready market in the east, and commercial fruit growing suddenly became viable. At first, fruit arrived in New York marketing houses in unmarked wooden crates. Competition, however, soon forced growers to the realization that they needed a means to make their own product stand out in the eyes of the customer.
At that time, advertising was dominated by the use of the printed paper label, the prime sales vehicle in the years before the advent of the mass media. The few small lithographic houses in San Fransisco and Los Angeles soon expanded their trade to include the lucrative business of providing labels for the fresh fruit industry in the United States.
In 1901, the Provincial Legislature of British Columbia passed the 'Fruit Marks Act.' This legislation required that all closed packages of fruit be stamped with the name and address of the grower, the variety of the fruit, and the grade of fruit. Such information gave the consumer basic iformation, but it did little to spark the actual purchase of a box of fruit.
By 1913, Okanagan growers were being advised to follow the lead of their American counterparts by developing distinctive and easily recognized brand names, thus ensuring consumer confidence and familiarity. As with produce from the United States, Okanagan fruit went to market in closed, wooden boxes. Each apple or pear was wrapped in tissue paper. As the customer could not see the fruit, much less sample it, a mechanism was needed to entice a buyer to select one crate over another - this was the job of the fruit label. The range and scope of designs which made their way onto fruit boxes was limited only by the imagination of the growers and packers who turned to this effective form of advertising.
The majority of labels used on Okanagan fruit boxes between 1920 and 1970 were produced in this province. The original 'big three' companies were Buman's, F.C. Smith Litho., and Grant Litho. In 1947, an upstart, Mann Litho., appeared and picked up new contracts from Delnor and Sun-Rype, and in 1951, Mann bought Grant and a new company, Grant-Mann, emerged.
The fine quality of art which made its way onto Okanagan fruit labels is hardly surprising considering the caliber of artists who worked on them. At one time, many aspiring Canadian artists made a living working in the art departments of lithographic houses. The group included such notable artists as A.Y. Jackson, Tom Thomson, and J.E.H. MacDonald, all of whom worked for a time as commercial designers in Eastern Canada. Unfortunately for art historians, by convention, all label art is anonymous.
Over the years, more than 150 different labels made their appearance in the province and, in many ways, the designs on the B.C. labels are similar to those from the United States and other parts of Canada. They did not, after all, develop in isolation. They were produced using the same lithographic process, and they served the same purpose. In addition, the B.C. labels were equally influenced by the sweeping artistic fashions of the day. Design elements such as lettering, layout, and general themes flowed freely across the borders.
British Columbia labels, however, developed in an economic, cultural, and physical environment which was unique to Western North America. Thus, the label designs used in B.C. were often unique in the themes and viewpoints expressed.
An outstanding example of this is found in a group of labels which convey very strong British oriented images. In 1911, 81% of the population of the Okanagan valley was of British origin, and as late as 1935, over 90% of the Okanagan's export apple crop went to Great Britain. These cultural and economic ties to the old country are clearly evident in labels such as 'Lion Brand', 'Buy British Brand', and 'John Bull Brand'.
Cultural and economic ties to the British Empire at that time were represented more subtly by the 'empire preference logo.' This symbol, a small, six-pointed star, is found on many labels printed in the late 1930s. It indicates that suppiers from the British Commonwealth were given a preferred tariff. When competing internationally with products from the United States and other non-empire parts of the world, something as simple as an empire star, or as blatant as 'John Bull Brand,' might give Okanagan produce an advantage in the marketplace.
Another distinct group of labels depicts landscapes of the Okanagan. Some of these are extremely accurate and can be matched with historic photographs. Others offer more fanciful interpretations, bearing little resemblance to reality. Whatever the case, to fruit buyers in other parts of Canada and abroad, this was the Okanagan.
British themes and images of the Okanagan are the two most obvious areas of difference between labels from British Columbia and from the United States. There are, however, some more subtle differences. Okanagan labels, for example, tend to emphasize the fact that the procuct within the box is 'Canadian.' American labels, on the other hand, tend to limit statements of nationality to a small 'Product of the U.S.A.' As well, and for no apparant reason, B.C. growers did not commonly place human figures on their labels. Yet, people are frequently depicted on those from the United States.
In the final analysis, however, many of the differences between Canadian and American label designs are intangible. We can sense them, but it is very difficult to describe them. They are simply there.
In the early 1960s, wooden fruit crates and paper labels were replaced by much cheaper cardboard cartons with pre-inked designs. While thousands of surplus labels were discarded and destroyed, it is fortunate that many still remain tucked away in packinghouses and public and private collections. As awareness and appreciation of this heritage resource increases, we can expect to see much greater concern for the preservation of these works of art.
The labels in this exhibition were produced by lithography, a printing process discovered partly by accident by Alois Senefelder of Munich in 1798. Senefelder drew a picture on a piece of Bavarian limestone, a smooth, porous rock used as a flooring material in his hometown. He brushed a weak acid solution over the rock, etching the surface where it was not protected by the wax in the crayon. The etched areas were more receptive to water. The crayoned design would accept ink, but the rest of the stone, if wet, repelled it. Thus, by wetting the stone and applying ink, a perfect mirror image of the etched design could eb produced when the stone was pressed to paper.
The inks used by lithographers are transparent. By printing one colour over another, any colour may be reproduced - much as an artist mixes colours on his palette. Each colour requires a separate run when stone printing plates are used. For an elaborate design with many colours, as many as 20 printing surfaces would have to be prepared.
In the early 1920s stone lithography plates were all but replaced by aluminum, and by the 1930s most B.C. lithographic companies had made the shift ot photo-lithography. This approach, still used today, employs a photographic process to transfer a drawing to a printing surface. Copies of the original can be made with as few as four colour runs.
This catalogue contains but a small selection of the fruit lables which were used by British Columbia growers. We have attempted to provide as representative a sample as possible to illustrate the full range of design types - Pioneer, Landscape, SImple logos, Exotica, and Cultural Connections. Enjoy!