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Californians Sell Little Italy, One Crate at a Time

Californians Sell Little Italy, One Crate at a Time

Laura E. Ruberto (December 2, 2009)
(Label image, P.V.)
Angelina Tokay varietal grape label

Fruit and Vegetable Crate Labels in California and the Italian Americans They Created


~~ sunny, lush land, fruit in abundance ~~
~~ exotic, saucy women, bountiful in their beauty ~~

~~ swarthy, wine-drinking, hardworking men ~~
These common popular culture images of Italy, Italians, and Italian Americans have been created and sustained by a variety of sources—not just the literature, film, and music we often critique, but also by powerful marketing tactics and consumer trends.
Sabine Haenni, in the The Immigrant Scene, illustrates some of the ways European immigrants’ production and consumption of entertainment-oriented spaces in the early twentieth century helped shape U.S. popular culture. In much the same way, I’d like to invite the possibility that consumer products, fruit and vegetable crate labels in particular, designed specifically with Italian immigrants in mind helped construct viable popular (and often stereotyped) images of such immigrants, even as they created a national, readily-accessible Italian American virtual community.
Fruit and vegetable crate label lithography and box-end imagery got their start in 1877 as part of a simple attempt to send oranges from California to Missouri via the transcontinental railroad. Just a decade later, cheerfully designed and vividly colored crate labels were a must for growers hoping to get their produce bought in the Midwest or along the East Coast. This California-born advertising technique would continue until cardboard boxes replaced wooden crates in the 1950s.
In those sixty-plus years, labeling caught on in all parts of the country and was certainly not always connected to Italian-owned businesses; however, the strength of California agribusiness and the high number of Italians in the industry make labeling an obvious place to look for cultural influences on identity and community. These labels—now collectors items found on eBay, at swap meets, and in antique shops—become telling visual markers of how Italian immigrants negotiated their position in a new land.
Reminiscent of the individually tissue-wrapped fruits common in Italy and elsewhere (see this amazing online collection of such wrappers), Italian American growers’ crate labels construct idealized images of both Italy and California, while providing us with a neatly packaged view of immigrant life. In fact, they construct an Italian immigrant community that goes well beyond the geographical borders of any singular Little Italy, and in so doing imagine the possibility of a generic—and, by default, leaning towards the stagnant and trite—Italian American identity. The imagery is not specific to the Italians of Harlem, Boston’s North End, or Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield; instead, it creates an Italian American consumer, punto e basta.
Most of the labels were produced by lithograph companies in San Francisco and Los Angeles and were by and large designed by German émigré artists. The Italian American, Othello Francis Michetti, a water colorist and lithographer was, though, an innovator in the field, especially for his use of color and billboard approach to labeling. Michetti (1895-1981) was born in Alanno (Abruzzo) and emigrated with his family to New York, where he studied at the Arts Student League, later moving to San Francisco. He painted rural life and country landscapes from many of the places he visited or lived, including his native Italy.

One of Michetti's watercolors (unknown town, Italy)
My interest in California fruit and vegetable labels from Italian American-owned businesses lies mainly in what they can tell us about how immigrants create a sense of place out of all aspects of culture. In the case of crate labels, the primary motivation behind the designs may be financial but the result is far broader. (What does it mean, for instance, that as Italian Americans moved en masse towards becoming white ethnics, they continued to exploit clichéd images of both Italian and Italian American life?)
Even a cursory look at these labels suggests some of the ways Italian American culture and history are informed by California’s agricultural possibilities, and, at the same time, some of the ways the Golden State’s most idealized images have been constructed through concepts of what it means to be Italian/Italian American. (OK, so what I’m getting at is far too theoretical for a blog post. In brief, it’s a recognition of a fluid relationship created and sustained by transnational migration—not only in the traditional sense of the mobility of individuals, but in the broader sense of real and virtual mobility of art, goods, and ideas generally.)
We might consider categorizing these labels in roughly three groups, or ways that Italy gets linked to the marketing of fruits and vegetables: through place, through women, and through culture.

Take this Cefalù table grape label where the island of Sicily comes to signify California grapes. One can guess that the Cesare family was from Cefalù but also that such a visual reminder of a place so different from any American landscape—and yet reminiscent parts of the California coast—was aimed at other Sicilian immigrants.
 (label in author's collection)
People—women in particular—with Italian-sounding names and accoutrements symbolically link fresh produce to female beauty and Old World traditions. As such, this category of labels helped fabricate stereotyped gendered images of Italian American women as associated with food but also with the lusty and exotic.

(label image courtesy of Pasquale Verdicchio)
According to Laurie Gordon and John Salkin’s history of orange crate art in California, labels were initially aimed at housewives, but after a 1919 California Fruit Growers Exchange study, there was a shift when it was found that it was wholesale buyers in East Coast auctions that were choosing the fruit, often without opening the boxes.
Adding to this is the fact, detailed to me by historian and collector Thomas Pat Jacobsen in an email exchange, that Italian and non-Italian growers alike marketed their goods “to fellow Italians in the East” (email exchange, November 24, 2009). This factor is key. By doing such targeted marketing, as I see it, they were de facto creating an identifiable, generic Italian American culture.

 (label in author's collection)
The final category offers us symbols associated with Italian American life and also a kind of attempt to document assimilation by connecting Italian American growers to an Italian history of progress.
The Mondavi Bocce players label is a perfect illustration of selling to a specifically Italian American consumer. Although the Mondavis eventually moved to a broader client base, the family built the foundation of their wine business as grape-sellers to Italian American communities in the Midwest and East coasts (see Julia Flynn Siler’s The House of Mondavi).

(label in author's collection)
The next two labels are made all the more revealing when juxtaposed. The first, an Americanized spelling for “carro a mano” or “handcart” with the Italian aranci, (a word which more readily denotes the orange tree, rather than the fruit itself, which would be arancia or arance), uses a realistic exchange between a street peddler and a woman with exaggerated ethnic clothing and physical markers to suggest wholesome goodness and Italian authenticity.
(This image comes from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco virtual collection; see a zoomable version of the label here.)
In the De Marco citrus label, the plump fruit of California is linked to Italian-inspired forms of transportation and progress: (1) a ship, reminiscent of one of the Colombus fleet; (2) a pre-WW II plane, possibly evoking the Fascist pilot, Italo Balbo; and (3) an ocean liner, suggestive of Italian immigration, or more likely, the SS Rex. All this to sell oranges. It is a bold image, especially considering the potentially unsavory associations with Fascism and its jarring difference from the quaint messages of community and individual sincerity in the Mondavi or Carro Amano labels.

(This image was found here.) 
In the end, what we can gather is that in their design and marketing choices, growers reached out to Italian consumers across the US. Ethnic-specific crate labels directed to immigrants connected individuals across space and time, much like online marketing or social networking does today. They helped make Italian Americans out of regional immigrant groups and as a result constructed and reinforced stereotypes.

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sciorra's picture

a great reading

you're developing such wonderful material on IAs in California and in popular culture. we need more than an exhibit!

fruit crate labels

Great sleuthing. Great images. An exhibition in the making?