How the century-old history of the Okanagan's bold fruit labels is being kept fresh

Collector Larry Kotz poses with his book on British Columbian fruit crate labels in his den in Vernon, B.C.  (Tom Popyk/CBC - image credit)
Collector Larry Kotz poses with his book on British Columbian fruit crate labels in his den in Vernon, B.C. (Tom Popyk/CBC - image credit)

Larry Kotz has never been a farmer, but for decades he has been maintaining an antique collection that makes his den at home in Vernon, B.C., look like a lush orchard during harvest season.

The 72-year-old retired mail carrier says he has 240 vintage fruit crate labels displayed on his walls — with several thousand more stored in the basement — after buying them from various packing houses in the Okanagan and his home province of Manitoba since 1988.

The avid collector says he's particularly interested in the paper labels — which feature mostly apples but also pears, cherries and other tree fruits — because of their colourful drawings of produce, plants, animals and human characters.

"I was attracted to the great graphics and the great colours that really stood out," he said. "I like the history that goes with the labels."

WATCH | How Larry Kotz collected his fruit crate labels over the years:

The labels offer insight into B.C.'s agriculture industry in the first half of the 20th century, when fruit from the Okanagan — which remains the major producer of Canada's cherries and apples — were exported as far away as the United Kingdom.

Symbols and stereotypes

According to the Lake Country Museum and Archives in Central Okanagan, there were as many as 88 packing houses and 13 canneries across the region during that period, where workers wrapped apples individually in thin paper, placed them in wooden crates, and shipped them to grocery stores in the Prairies, eastern Canada and the U.K.

Wayne Wilson, former executive director of the Kelowna Museums Society, says fruit growers began sticking beautifully designed labels on crates around 1913, after the B.C. government had encouraged them to follow the successful example of Washington state farmers to boost consumer appeal in Canada.

Wilson says because most of their fruit was exported to the U.K., Okanagan growers often used labels that reflected how Britons imagined Western Canada, such as ones featuring Indigenous people wearing feathered headdresses, and also British symbols like John Bull and the Scottish thistle.

He added that Americans inspired B.C. fruit labels a lot, and there wasn't much concern over copying designs — one notable example being the similarity of Vernon's Terrier brand label to that of a Los Angeles lemon grower.

"The border in terms of graphic design was a pretty porous border, so these designs went back and forth all the time," Wilson said.

Wilson estimates Vancouver lithographic printing houses churned out millions of crate labels for Okanagan farmers until the late 1950s, when the industry replaced wooden crates with cardboard boxes.

But the labels' legacy lives on, in the hands of private collectors across North America and also in exhibits like the ones at the Okanagan Wine and Orchard Museum housed in the Laurel Packinghouse, which is located in downtown Kelowna along with other historic buildings once occupied by the fruit industry.

WATCH | Wayne Wilson explains the shape and location of Laurel Packinghouse:

The Kelowna Museums Society also worked with the city on a project between 2011 and 2015 to wrap more than 300 utility boxes across the municipality with designs including replica fruit crate labels, with the purpose of discouraging graffiti.

Colonial legacy

But the history of fruit-growing in the Okanagan is also one of colonization, and that, too, is reflected in some of the labels, says David Jefferess, a cultural studies professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan who specializes in decolonization.

Jefferess says, for instance, the very name of the fruit-growing company Occidental — an adjective meaning "western European" that implies civilization, in direct contrast to "oriental" — is inherently racist.

"['Occidental'] reflects the idea at the time that white people had the authority and the entitlement to go wherever they wanted in the world, to take over the lands and to alter those lands, including creating orchards in the Okanagan," he said.

It also has a racist aspect when put in the context of mistreated Asian orchard labourers across the Okanagan in the early 20th century, Jefferess said.

Winston Szeto/CBC
Winston Szeto/CBC

The Occidental label is wrapped around several utility boxes in Kelowna.

Wilson agrees that some of the labels are racist, but hopes that when people see them — whether in a museum or on a utility box — they'll become more aware of Okanagan history, both good and bad.

"I think a community that knows more about its history is just a better community," he said.

WATCH | Vernon collector, Kelowna curator shares history of Okanagan fruit crate labels: