Orange Industry, Los Angeles County (PC-GS_00161)
August 1, 2023

History Keepers: Souvenirs from Southern California’s Orange Empire

Inspired by the “History Keepers” collaborative exhibition, this blog post explores Southern California’s orange empire through the photographs, documents, scrapbooks, and ephemera that help us to tell and understand its history.

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History Keepers: Souvenirs from Southern California’s Orange Empire

Souvenirs from Southern California’s Orange Empire, 1910—40
History Keeper: David Boulé

Roadside stand
Orange Inn Roadside Stand

They are Los Angeles’s history keepers. They research, organize, store, repair, and care for historical artifacts and make them available to us online, at exhibitions, through publications, or in their homes. This summer, from August 5 to August 27, the California Historical Society celebrates Los Angeles’s history keepers with an exhibition at the historic El Pueblo National Monument.

A series of blogs brings our online visitors a sample of objects in the exhibition. Here we illustrate how Southern California’s Orange Empire was not only an economic powerhouse, but also a major tourist draw for almost a hundred years.

Cloaked in mystery and available only to the elite until modern times, the orange has been known as the fruit of the gods, the food of emperors, a token of gratitude and a symbol of health, wealth and love. The idea of California has been of a place of plenty, of potential, of personal opportunity. The orange became a glowing symbol of this dream.


California is a fine place to live, if you happen to be an orange.”

—Fred Allen (American comedian, 1894—1956)


In his book
The Orange and the Dream of California, David Boulé takes a lively, literary and extraordinarily visual look at this colorful and captivating history and reveals the tremendous impact of the orange on the culture and development of California, and how these two entities have built on one another to feed the imagination and conjure a compelling fantasy.

Yokohl Brand labelSchmidt Litho. Co. printer, Yokohl Brand California oranges, Exeter Orange Growers Association, circa 1930.
California Historical Society (Kemble-Spec-Col-08_039)

A third generation Californian, Boulé has a lifelong fascination with the history, culture, achievements and uniqueness of the region. “The enduring image of California as paradise and the orange as unique among all fruit is because, partially, these things are true. These traits have then been magnified by poets and boosters, artists and hucksters, songwriters and bureaucrats—with both artistic and commercial motivation—to appeal to people’s continuing desire to believe that such exceptional perfection can really exist,” he says.

California Calls You Union Pacific poster
Union Pacific, “California Calls You” Brochure
Courtesy California Historical Society

Boule’s collection began after he attended his first paper ephemera show and found himself particularly drawn to the images with “the quintessential iconic image: snow-capped mountains, a beautiful sky, a manicured orchard, a lovely home…” What began with around 600 postcards expanded to include photographs, periodicals, brochures, books, posters, educational materials, advertising and marketing materials, souvenirs, pins, badges and objects from the California citrus industry. 

“It is hard to overemphasize how big the California orange industry was in 1895,” Boule said in interview with KCET, “Riverside, California, from growing oranges, had the highest per capita income in America. And in 1920… the number two revenue source in the entire state of CA–only behind oil–was oranges.” 

Indeed the orange industry experienced a boost with the development of railways, automobiles and roads in the late 1890s. Prior to these, leisure travel was an adventure reserved for the hearty or the wealthy. Now more people could visit, explore, and see the wonders of a place where oranges grew beneath mountains covered with snow.

Postcard with early automobiles in orange orchard
Touring in the Orange District
David Boulé California Orange Collection

The Pacific Electric Railway, also known as the Red Car, was the largest electric railway system in the world in the 1920s, even extending into the Southern California Orange Empire. For those touring Southern California by car, stands offering fresh-squeezed orange juice were a welcomed sight. As historian Kevin Starr writes in Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era, an “ambience of a Mediterranean idyll conferred on parts of Southern California . . . offset the realities of the American present with a charm that was enthusiastically exported on the orange crate labels sent East as the very image of Southern California.”

Pacific Electric Railway brochure
Pacific Electric Railway Brochure
David Boulé California Orange Collection

Old photographs of orange crate label pastoralism provide evidence of the peak in citrus culture. As Starr writes: The groves themselves first and foremost, extending from seashore to mountain range, and the great packing sheds adjacent to them, sweeping, open structures, forcefully aesthetic in their utility, banked by stands of eucalyptus trees which channeled the breezes to an advantageous angle as the fruit remained piled high in storage preparatory to packing; and within these sheds, the work of sorting, washing, wrapping each fruit in specially decorated tissue paper, tasks performed in the main by young women, who regard us today from the pages of old magazines, their hands folded atop white aprons in a moment’s repose as the photographer asked them to cease work so that he might record the scene.”

Perfume globe & box with note

Orange Blossoms by Duvinne Perfume Dispenser
David Boulé California Orange Collection


Miniature orange crates

Miniature Orange Crates
David Boulé California Orange Collection

The enticing labels pasted upon orange crates made the selling of California along with oranges, as an image in the national imagination even more explicit. Nearly a hundred years later, the orange-inspired graphic ambitions still leap from the pages they were first printed on. In the 1890s, Starr writes, the custom grew up of individual packing houses labeling their orange crates with a specific brand name and trademark. Until Max Schmidt, a San Francisco printer who spun the orange crate label into a significant genre of folk art, the labels had little, if any California reference. With staff artists such as Othello Michetti and Archie Vazques, Schmidt Lithograph Co. issued orange crate labels that glowed with colors that went beyond nature and spoke directly to fantasy. Schmidt encouraged each grower to collaborate in the creation of an individualized label that involved an idealized California landscape.

Orange Crate Labels
Orange Crate Labels, Schmidt Litho. Co., Kemble Special Collection
Courtesy California Historical Society

The idealized California landscape, and its deliberate assertions of a romanticized Southern California, found channels in tourist hotels like the Del Coronado. Like the agricultural colonies, they were statements of an ideal and bore utopian overtones. Writer Henry James, “felt that the blood of Southern California’s civilization ran thin and enjoyed the Del Coronado, finding it an idealized garden of the South,” Starr observes. The tourist hotel brought the East and Easterners to Santa Barbara, to Pasadena, San Diego, and Long Beach, setting a tone and creating an ambience for developing communities. 
Hotel Del Coronado poster
Hotel Del Coronado Brochure
Courtesy California Historical Society

Starr continues: “Many immigrants from the East had their first exposure to Southern California as tourists, a fact conferring on the hotel the role of colonizing agent. They were for the few, not the many; but because the immigrant of the 1880s and 1890s was quintessentially middle class—and thus capable of being impressed by the habits and styles of privilege—the tourist hotel did more than pleasure its wealthy clientele.”

Thus the Southern California Orange Empire was not only an economic powerhouse, but also a major tourist draw for almost a hundred years. Oranges went east, and people came west. Souvenirs helped people send a little bit of the Golden State to family and friends across the country.

According to the California Agricultural Statistics Review 2013–14, California is one of the nation’s largest fruit producing state and accounts for over half of the harvested fruit acreage in the country. Counties leading the production include: Tulare, Kern, Fresno, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura. Ninety-nine million cartons of oranges were produced in the crop year 2013–14 and 166,000 acres of land were harvested for oranges. In the 2014 statistical review for the total U.S. export, “Oranges and Products” were valued at $1.179 billion.

California Calls You Union Pacific brochure
Union Pacific, “California Calls You” Brochure
Courtesy California Historical Society

As Boulé says, “California entered history as a myth, named by the Spanish for the fabled tribe of Amazons under the command of Queen Calafia. The orange, too, has been cloaked in mystery since migrating from its origins in China, becoming the fruit of gods, the food of emperors, a token of gratitude and a symbol of health, wealth and love. . . . The promotion of California as a unique agrarian paradise, a place of unlimited possibility and where personal reinvention was possible, has been cultivated by governments and song writers, politicians and poets, marketers and philosophers. . . . The orange continues to be a symbol—a logo, even—for this California dream.”

California Southern Pacific poster
Southern Pacific, “California”
Courtesy California Historical Society
Sarah Lee
California Historical Society
Originally published on Aug 22, 2016


  1. Starr, Kevin. Inventing The Dream. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.
  2. California Agricultural Statistics Review 2014-15. Sacramento 2015. https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/PDFs/2015Report.pdf
  3. “Fruit and Nut Crops,” California Agricultural Statistics Review 2013-14. Sacramento 2015. https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/pdfs/2013/FruitandNut.pdf
  4. Geisseler, Daniel and William R. Horwath. Citrus Production In California. Davis: California Department of Food and Agriculture Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP), 2016. https://apps1.cdfa.ca.gov/FertilizerResearch/docs/Citrus_Production_CA.pdf
  5. Boulé, David. The Orange and the Dream of California. Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2014
  6. Monomania L.A.: David Boulé And The California Orange. Los Angeles: KCET, 2015. video. https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/monomania-la-david-boule-and-the-california-orange
  1. “California Calls You,” Pamphlet Collection, California Historical Society 
  2. “California” Southern Pacific Folders, Business Ephemera, California Historical Society 
  3. “Hotel Del Coronado” California Counties, San Diego County, California Ephemera Collection, California Historical Society
  4. Orange crate label, Navajo Brand, Schmidt Litho. Co., Crate, can, and bottle label collection, Kemble Spec Col 08, courtesy, California Historical Society, Kemble Spec Col 08_042.jpg
  5. Orange crate label, Victoria Brand, Schmidt Litho. Co., Crate, can, and bottle label collection, Kemble Spec Col 08, courtesy, California Historical Society, Kemble Spec Col 08_041.jpg
  6. Valencias crate label, Weaver Brand of Piru, Schmidt Litho. Co., Crate, can, and bottle label collection, Kemble Spec Col 08, courtesy, California Historical Society, Kemble Spec Col 08_040.jpg.
An exhibition by the California Historical Society and LA as Subject
Presented in partnership with El Pueblo Historical Monument and the El Pueblo Park Association
El Tranquilo Gallery & Visitor Center
634 N. Main Street (entrance on Olvera Street, W-19)
El Pueblo de Los Ángeles Historical Monument, Los Angeles, California
TuesdayFriday, 10:00 am3:00 pm
Saturday and Sunday, 9:00 am4:00 pm