Piggy Pears, Tipsy Bee and Stagecoach Orchards all share a local connection that's as colorful as their names imply. They were Rogue Valley pear-producer brand names, and the labels on their fruit crates were designed to catch the eye of packing houses and retailers.
Growers and packers applied these unique labels to crate ends for shipping identification and to help folks remember their product. With local pear-picking to continue for a few more weeks, September seems an appropriate time to revisit their purpose and popularity.
Wooden crates full of California oranges and other fruits began rolling East during the 1880s when the railroad made shipping fruit over long distances possible. Lithography came along as the first commercial art. European artists designed thousands of subjects — from marching Scottish bagpipers to lithesome Indian maidens for lithography companies.
They mass-produced these advertising works of art from the late 1800s to the 1960s in two basic sizes, roughly 9 by 3 inches for the lug-sized crates and 10 1/2 by 9 inches for four-fifths of a bushel.
By the late '50s and early '60s, growers were beginning to switch over to cardboard boxes with brand names printed on the box. Thousands of unused fruit labels lay in old barns, packing houses and lithography offices until historians and collectors recognized their value not only for their beauty, but also as a rich part of agricultural history.
Stagecoach Orchard, located on Old Stage Road, featured a label in the 1950s with a stagecoach and four horses galloping through a pear orchard. It's one of my favorites even though it's fairly common and inexpensive at around $5.
Piggy Pears was a brand of Highcroft Orchards in Medford, also used in the '50s. Their label shows a sprightly cartoon pig trotting along with a basket of pears over its arm — easily obtainable and great for a beginning collector. You know you want one.
Now, the Tipsy Bee is an insect of a different color. The one I found online had an asking price of $35 because of rarity. One of Harry & David's brands from around 1940, it shows a bee drinking through a straw poked into a pear. Not sure where the tipsy part comes in unless the pear is fermented.
The granddaddy of local labels I discovered was a 1930 beauty from Bear Creek Orchards with the head of a ferocious-looking bear, the likes of which I hope no hapless walker meets along Bear Creek. You would need to hand over $50 to add the ursine specimen to your collection. I did spy an especially nice 1920 example from Antler Apples packed in Chelan, Wash., featuring a majestic image of a buck, for $100.
Many great labels are still available, and most run between $4 and $8, making them easy and affordable to collect. Age and rarity determine value. Because the labels are unused, most should be in mint condition. Two enjoyable online resources are www.paperstuff.com and www.thelabelman.com, which offers more detailed history and good collecting tips for all kinds of labels.
Many fruit labels already are quite rare and preserved in private collections. I'm thankful for those who have taken the time and effort to scour back-road sheds and dilapidated barns to rescue these reminders of our colorful past.
Freelance writer Peggy Dover writes about antiques and the human stories behind them. She lives in Eagle Point. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.