Former agricultural inspector Dwayne Rogers has turned his hobby of collecting vintage fruit crate labels into a business, each week selling 100 to 150 paper labels featuring stunning graphics from the 1890s to 1970s and names like Oh Yes! Asparagus, Abe Lincoln Oranges and Buxom Melons. The labels turn up in packing plants, warehouses, print shops and people’s attics, and when they do, Rogers snags them to sell on eBay and on his Web site, www.thelabelman.com.
In the late-'70s, when I was an ag inspector, we used to travel around [the state] like fruit tramps. There was a group of us who were collecting, trading back and forth. I started selling at antique shows on the weekends, and then eBay came along. I spent about a year doing both, and then I quit my job three or four years ago. This is a much better living than a day job, but much more work—about 60 hours a week.
Why were labels so cool back then?
It goes back to the turn of the century, when railroad cars would ship the products to Chicago and New York and the markets would have all these boxes, rows and rows of oranges, and the buyers would come through to buy for their stores. You wanted catchy labels people would remember. Early on, there were a lot of individual companies, and then there was consolidation, with Sunkist and Del Monte buying others out.
What’s your favorite? Is there like a Holy Grail of crate labels?
Del Monte had a printing company in Oakland, but they threw all these turn-of-the-century labels out in the ‘70s. Some people took them out of the garbage Dumpsters. They’re really beautiful, and I’ve never been able to find any of them. There was an orchard over in Hamilton City, and I know someone has piles of them. I looked for years for them.
Have there ever been scandals with reproductions?
People do that. That was always my fear when I first started selling. But so far, they’re so abundant people haven’t had the need to reproduce them. People like being able to spend $5 or $10 for a label and frame them or whatever. There’s a fun of collecting where you enjoy just looking at all your labels. [But then] you get the guy who has 50,000 labels and he’s an obsessive kind of person who just has to have one of everything, and when he sees something in someone else’s collection, he doesn’t really enjoy it, he just goes crazy wanting to get it.