Watsonville’s Crate Label Murals

Every week, I drive twenty minutes south of Santa Cruz to Watsonville, CA where I volunteer at a soup kitchen. And every week, I drive past three murals depicting old fruit labels of the sort that were once used to mark the crates of apples and berries shipped from this agricultural hub to the rest of the country.

Sometimes I like to wander around Watsonville with my camera, in an effort to get to know the community a little better. The city, which is home to approximately 50,000 people, is located at the mouth of the Pajaro River. The wetlands created near the river delta help to fuel the area’s thriving agricultural industry. Since the late 1800’s, Watsonville has been a major production center for apples, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, lettuce, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and flowers.

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Watsonville’s population is over 80% Latino, so meandering through its neighborhoods feels a lot like being in a small Mexican city. Most shops have signs written in Spanish, and the streets are overflowing with fruterias, panaderias, quinceañera dress shops, and centers from which to send money to Mexico. There are plenty of taco stands, and colorful cut paper flags augment the Victorian facades of Main Street’s buildings.

In the course of my explorations, I discovered that the three crate label murals I pass each week are not the only ones in town. There are fifteen such murals in Watsonville, all part of a project to beautify the downtown area and pay tribute to the city’s agricultural history.

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Crate labels were a major aspect of agricultural marketing from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. With no real way for distributors and customers to distinguish one product from another, unique labels glued to otherwise uniform wooden packing crates provided one way for companies to set their fruit apart from others. Artists were commissioned to create brightly colored, eye-catching graphics, and these designs were printed in huge runs to save on printing costs. Most of the labels that survive today were found in warehouse stashes. They’ve become collectible items, and thanks to online crate label dealers and sales platforms such as ebay, you can acquire labels featuring just about any type of imagery that catches your eye.

Crate label experts can see the evolution of both marketing strategy and printing technology in their collections. They can pinpoint the manufacture date of a label based on its subject matter, layout, and color process. However, even those of us lacking industry knowledge can tell that these are artworks from the ’40’s and ’50’s. There’s something about the style, the lines, and the color choices that we immediately associate with that time period. Perhaps most striking of all are the fonts used on these labels. To me, there’s an innocent and old-fashioned flavor about them. They appear “hand-made” in comparison with the computer-generated fonts to which my eyes have grown accustomed.  I am charmed by their imperfection and honesty.

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As an artist and graphic designer myself, I couldn’t help but think about the people who created these labels back in the day. I’m fairly certain they never suspected their works would one day be collectors’ items, much less the subject material of wall-sized murals. I bet they’d be thrilled by their preservation, though. What artist doesn’t want to see his or her work live on in a way that pays homage to its time and place?

We don’t always know where our work will end up, or whom it will affect; nor do we always want to.

What a great reminder to keep the creative work flowing. Someday, somewhere, someone will stumble upon it and smile.

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