Lug and Can Label Collection now available digitally

Our newest digitized collection launched today, featuring colorful images of fruits and vegetables that helped market California produce starting in the early days of the transcontinental railroad.

The Lug and Can Label Collection, part of the library’s Archives and Special Collections, consists of more than 4,800 lithographed labels created primarily for containers of fruits and vegetables. The labels provide researchers with examples of art advertising and agricultural history.

Paper labels to identify the brand name and packing location of boxes of fresh fruit were first used in Southern California in the 1880s. These labels replaced the earlier methods of identifying shipments of fruit: stenciling, stamping, or burning the brand information on the wooden crates.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad changed the way California fruit was marketed. The national transportation network offered distributors the ability to send their products to customers on the East Coast. However, they needed an effective way to identify and advertise the product to those customers. They developed a wooden shipping box about 12″ x 12″ x 27″, and used a paper label about 10″ x 11″ on the box end. The brightly colored label became an important part of the national marketing system.

Growers and packers collaborated with commercial artists to design the labels. The labels identified the brand name and type of the product, the grower and/or packer, and their location. They also displayed images that would call attention to the product in the midst of competition. As a result, thousands of different label designs were produced.

The use of the paper labels ended in the mid-1950’s, when cardboard boxes with preprinted labels came into circulation.

More than 3,400 of the labels have been digitized and are available online in the library’s Digital Collections here. The item description for each of the labels provides the name of the distributor/packer, brand name of the product, the city, county, and state location of the packer, and the type of product advertised. A complete inventory of the collection is available via the finding aid on the Online Archive of California.