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Feature Article

The Sunkist Sunburst Trademark – A Brief History
By Gordon T. McClelland

Sunkist oranges sunburst label
Sunkist oranges sunburst label
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Collectors of California and Arizona citrus labels are familiar with the name Sunkist and with the various updated versions of the trademark. But the history of how this trademark name came into being, the reasons why it was developed, and what the original trademark designs looked like, is not nearly as well known. Provided here is a brief essay along with some pictorial examples that shed some light on this topic.

Shortly after T.H. B. Chamblin of Riverside founded the Southern California Fruit Exchange (SCFE) (Sunkist Growers, Inc.) in 1893, it became apparent that a grading system for all the citrus fruits they brought to market would need to be developed. Various methods of achieving this goal were tried, but it was not until after the turn of the century that a satisfactory solution was found.

CSCGE booklet

This is a reproduction of a two-page spread from the 1901 Southern California Fruit Growers Exchange booklet identifying the affiliated packing houses and each packer's top two brands. Before the additional Sunkist branding, packers simply used "Fancy" for the best grade oranges and "Choice" for the second grade oranges.
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By that time, most of the individual packers and shippers that formed the SCFE co-operative had developed their own trademarked brands. Each packer had a top grade brand name which appeared on the paper label they attached to the end of the shipping boxes. Those top quality oranges were given the title "Fancy" fruit. Only the finest oranges and lemons were supposed to be shipped under that brand name. They also had a second quality brand. The second grade fruit was given the title "Choice" fruit.

  1906 ad campaign
  Black and white art created for the first 1906 Southern California Fruit Exchange newspaper advertising campaign in Iowa. The legendary Lord and Thomas advertising agency of Chicago handled this account. This image was placed in the middle of advertisement text promoting California oranges distributed by the exchange.
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That method worked out reasonably well, but unfortunately some packers were not as strict at grading as others were. When the SCFE realized this they began to send agents to the packing houses to make unannounced fruit inspections. This procedure established a more vigorously monitored quality control system that has served the organization since it was implemented.

By 1906, the SCFE launched a campaign to advertise California oranges and their benefits for good health. Des Moines, Iowa was selected as the center for the campaign. The Southern Pacific Railway served as a partner in this venture which went a long way in establishing good will between the two organizations. Signage inside train cars and billboards alongside the railroad tracks promoted the purchasing of California oranges. In addition, many full page advertisements were run in newspapers all across the state of Iowa.

As this first campaign was taking shape, the advertising agency in Chicago that was handling the account suggested that the SCFE develop a simple, easy to remember trademark name that would serve to identify the exchange in advertising campaigns and would also serve as a trademark branding on all the boxes of "Fancy grade" fruit sold through the exchange. The name SUN-KISSED was first suggested, but after several discussions with the advertising agency, the SUNKIST brand name was selected.

Sunkist sunburst ad logo
Sunkist Sunburst Trademark logo commonly used in magazine advertisements to connect brand name with oranges and lemons being sold in the marketplace.
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Records from the United States Patent Office show the name Sunkist was first used publicly on October 10, 1907 to promote California oranges. On June 5, 1908, the SCFE officially filed the trademark. Shortly after they filed the papers, the SCFE ordered seven million labels with the newly designed Sunkist "Sunburst" trademark. They were round labels; four inches in diameter and were printed in two colors (illustrated above). Six million of these were printed for Sunkist Oranges and one million for Sunkist Lemons.

When the round labels arrived, the SCFE sent bundles of them to all their affiliated packing houses. Instructions were given to paste the round Sunkist sunburst label on top of an appropriate section of the label they were already using to identify their boxes of Fancy quality fruit. This meant that regardless of what the packers normal top quality brand was, there would be an additional Sunkist trademark label to assure the buyers that top grade standards were met on each box of oranges or lemons on which the trademark appeared. The SCFE also insisted that each orange, lemon or grapefruit inside the box was wrapped with a tissue. Each of these tissues had the Sunkist sunburst trademark printed on it.

The round labels are the very first Sunkist labels and are quite rare items. After 1908 the packers began ordering labels with the Sunkist sunburst trademark lithographed right into the label design. In some cases that addition required artists at the lithograph companies to redesign part of the label or, in some cases, all of the label to accommodate the circular Sunkist image.

  Playmates Brand label
  Playmates Brand label

One of the first of the custom made labels with the Sunkist sunburst logo was Playmates Brand. It featured a little girl (Miss California) and a little boy (Iowa). The little girl was sharing her California oranges with him. She is in the California sunshine and he is in the Iowa snow. The image on the Playmates label is almost exactly like the image on the first Sunkist newspaper advertising campaign. Other versions include the slogan "You throw snow balls for me and I will throw oranges for you."

When the trademark was first added to the label designs, it appeared in the full four-inch diameter format and in the original orange and blue colors. But within a few years, affiliated citrus packers began to use several different sizes and color variations of the same basic sunburst trademark design. In many cases, the changes reflected the desire to comply with the requirement of adding the Sunkist sunburst trademark without ruining the look of the label design they already had. That is why labels with the large, four-inch Sunkist sunburst trademark are hard to find.

Argonaut Brand label  
Argonaut Brand label  

On January 5, 1909, the SCFE received the final notice that they were officially the owners of the Sunkist trademark in the fresh fruit industry. By that time many additional advertising campaigns had been launched and the Lord and Thomas advertising agency, a pioneer in this form of advertising, was featuring the Sunkist sunburst trademark prominently on the advertising posters, billboards and magazine advertisements.

All these changes and compliances seemed like a lot of trouble, but there was a very good reason why the Lord and Thomas agency and the SCFE took this approach. The SCFE was spending a lot of money advertising California oranges on a national level and their competitors were benefiting almost as much as they were. When the Sunkist trademark logo began appearing on the posters, billboards and magazine advertisements, wholesale and retail fruit buyers could make the direct connection when they saw the same Sunkist trademark logo on the box labels and on the tissue that was wrapped around each piece of fruit.

Sunkist lemons sunburst label
Sunkist lemons sunburst label
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Once everything lined up as planned, the campaign was a major success. The sales of Sunkist oranges increased greatly, which helped propel the SCFE into a leading position in the marketing of California citrus fruits. It also served to convince thousands of additional citrus growers that a grower-owned, co-operative marketing system could succeed. Citrus growers from Northern and Central California and Arizona joined the co-op which led to changing the name from Southern California Fruit Exchange to the California Fruit Growers Exchange.

The Sunkist sunburst trademark played a key role in the success of those early national advertising campaigns. The same basic design was used on a regular basis up until about 1915. After that time the advertising agency introduced several other Sunkist trademark designs, and by 1925 the original logo was almost entirely phased out. Today the citrus labels with this logo are highly sought after as beautiful collector’s items and also function to visually document a very important era in the California citrus industry.

Primary Sources:

  • Los Angeles Times Riverside, January 16, 1893.
  • The History of the California Fruit Growers Exchange, MacCurdy, 1925.
  • Author's interview with Levi Hershler, 1974.
  • Author's interview with Raymond Soper, 1975.
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