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Ventura County

Citrus Label Exhibit Chronicles the Selling of California -- by the Crate

Images of the state's golden age of agriculture go on display Sunday at the Ventura County Museum of History & Art.

March 04, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The images evoke a simpler era, a time when citrus was king and the push was on to sell a slice of sunny, exotic California to the outside world.

And so the citrus labels, soon to go on display at the Ventura County Museum of History & Art, explode in vibrant colors, depicting seascapes and mountain vistas, wide open freeways and rosy-cheeked pinup girls.

"The rest of the country didn't know about citrus," said Pattie Dix, the museum's community relations director. "These were used as marketing efforts to spread the word of what life was like in California."

The exhibit opens Sunday with a $20-per-person reception and runs through May 25 at the Main Street museum in downtown Ventura.

The museum is receiving 80 California produce crate labels as part of a traveling exhibition organized by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. It will add 60 Ventura and Santa Barbara county labels, as well as a selection of Ventura County vegetable crate labels.

The local labels come from the museum's private collection and from area collectors who have loaned the eye-catching art pieces to the show.

Those include 29 labels from retired banker and Ventura resident Elbert Van Orsdol, who has collected more than 300 Ventura County labels in 25 years.

"They are an important part of Ventura County history," said Van Orsdol, 81, who lived most of his life among the fragrant orange groves near Fillmore. He keeps his labels in albums, each tucked inside an acid-free plastic slip to protect from wear and tear.

"I've just about run out of labels to collect," Van Orsdol said. "All of the ones left on my list are very expensive and scarce."

Starting in the late 1800s, citrus packinghouses pasted the artwork on wooden fruit crates, hoping to entice customers in colder climes with iconic images of the Golden State. The practice went out of vogue in the 1950s when packinghouses shifted to cardboard and started stamping their corporate logos on boxes.

Although the labels were designed by top commercial artists, few people thought of them as collector's pieces at the time.

In fact, many ended up being discarded in packinghouse basements and storerooms. One packinghouse manager tells of burying bunches of them along the banks of the Santa Clara River. Plenty ended up in the trash.

"People ahead of the curve started collecting these in the 1970s," museum curator Anne Shilton Graumlich said. "They came to be valued because they documented California history, agricultural history and advertising history."

The Ventura County portion of the exhibit will cover all of those bases.

It will demonstrate the evolution of early agricultural advertising, revealing how scenic vistas gave way over time to a more direct marketing approach, where fruit and brand names came to be featured prominently in bold letters and bright colors.

"They used full color at a time when there wasn't color advertising," Dix said.

Many labels played up the health benefits of local produce, featuring young people -- beaming and full of life -- guzzling orange juice and lemonade.

Decades before Gatorade got into the game, the Camarillo Citrus Assn. pushed its "Vital" brand of oranges with a label featuring a woman playing tennis.

To bolster spirits during the Great Depression, the Santa Paula Orange Assn. put out a series featuring a camel, an elephant and a polar bear under brands called "Endurance," "Strength" and "Stalwart."

Looking toward the future, the Santa Clara Lemon Assn. promoted its Freeway brand of lemons with a label featuring a wide-open stretch of road slicing through Southern California.

Taken together, the labels provide a unique California chronicle, Graumlich said, idealized images designed to sell the rest of the world on the value and goodness of the state's golden age of agriculture.

"They are colorful and they are easy to like," Graumlich said. "They have a real sense of time and place, and I think that appeals to people."

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Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. General admission is $4, $3 for seniors and $1 for children ages 6 to 17.

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