An unlikely obsession: Pat Jacobsen has spent more than 40 years collecting vintage fruit crate labels
Fruit Crate Labels
Pat Jacobsen, agrilithologist
Original fruit crate label art and agricultural history
Vintage labels now for sale at SPD market in Nevada City
Pat Jacobsen got hooked on collecting things at the age of 8, when his dad gave him his stamp and coin collections. But he quickly realized that it was too expensive to add to his collections if he really wanted something rare.
It wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that he hit upon something that few people were collecting — but lots of people wanted to buy: vintage fruit crate labels.
“When I got my first bachelor pad in 1978 I went to the grocery store and asked for the wood fruit crates they were throwing out,” he said. “I used them as shelves and a coffee table.”
He was taken by the vivid, idyllic agricultural scenes portrayed on the end of each box — images that conjured up a simpler time, often with ripe fruit still hanging from the tree. But his interest was truly piqued when he met a woman selling fruit crate labels on Pier 39 in San Francisco for as much as $100 apiece.
Working as a musician with gigs up and down the Pacific coast, Jacobsen’s job gave him the opportunity to visit farms, box makers, printing companies and retired crate label artists throughout prime fruit-growing regions. He slowly began to learn more about lithography and the history of the agricultural west, which enabled him to build a rapport with those who could help him with his search of prime fruit labels.
He also stumbled upon a little-known fact that older book stores often kept excess inventory in old wooden crates in their basements. When allowed to borrow a box, he found it relatively easy to saturate the label — usually attached with wheat paste — and carefully remove it, then simply return the box.
Jacobsen enjoyed the thrill of the hunt, and would occasionally hit his version of a jackpot. A farm in Exeter, and a box maker in Bakersfield, virtually gave him tens of thousands of obsolete labels, telling him, “Take all you want.”
When Jacobsen came home with his biggest haul yet — which nearly bottomed out his El Camino — he knew he could eek out a living selling, buying and trading labels, coupled with his regular music gigs. A brief office job in San Francisco’s financial district had been enough to convince him that he would do anything to avoid spending hours in a cubicle.
Some four decades later, Jacobsen, who now lives in Grass Valley, has established himself as a known collector of crate labels, some of which date back to the 1880s. His historical collection consists of an estimated 75,000 original labels, not to mention thousands upon thousands more duplicates and reproductions. A self-described “agri-lithologist,” Jacobsen brings to the table extensive historical knowledge, and is known for regaling his customers with the stories behind the images.
While Jacobsen enjoys taking his treasured pieces to swap meets and collectors’ clubs, he finds a certain joy in selling affordable reproductions to everyday folk. Currently, a collection of regional vintage labels is on display in the produce section at SPD market in Nevada City, accompanied by an impressive selection of reproductions (and a few originals) for sale.
“It’s amazing how detailed those labels used to be — now they’re just cranked out and printed on a side of a cardboard box,” said Ben Painter, manager at SPD’s Nevada City market. “The customers really appreciate Pat’s display — it sparks conversation and adds a flare to our produce department.”
Jacobsen says he has some rare labels that could sell for as much as $4,000, and one “priceless” one, which could potentially bring in as much as $50,000, but he says he will never part with it.
“I admit I’ve become totally obsessed,” he said, with a laugh. “But these days my hunt is somewhat over — most of the original artists are dead and orchards all over the west have become tract housing.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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