Like boys everywhere in America, Jim Thielen collected baseball cards from the 1950s and 1960s.
Then he unloaded them -- to his everlasting regret.
“Sold them to my cousin,” said the 52-year-old Chicago native and Parrish resident. “Unfortunately, there were ones that turned out to be quite valuable.”
Though those baseball cards are gone, Thielen still has the inclination for collecting interesting things.
Like produce crate labels from across the country, particularly Florida.
Considered the Sunshine State’s first real advertising, the labels were colorful lithography pasted on the end of wooden crates for packing and shipping fruit, vegetables and other produce to northern markets.
The practice began in the late 1800s and lasted until just after World War II before the introduction of cardboard boxes with pre-printed names.
Thielen and his wife, Meredith Lamb, have been collecting crate labels for 14 years and host a Florida Produce Crate Label Swap Meet on Saturday at the Palmetto Historical Park’s Carnegie Library.
“The artwork is what caught the eye. They’re like paintings, quite beautiful,” he said. “The prettier and more outstanding they were made, then the buyers were more attracted to buying the produce.
“Once we started collecting them it just grew on my wife and I.”
Many produce labels also bore anecdotes about how they got their names. Some even carried the family background.
“Not only was the artwork fascinating, but there’s history here, too,” he said. “A lot of Disney artists got their start doing produce labels.”
They’ve collected almost 800 labels, including several with Manatee County origins:
D. M. Courtney Inc.
Domino Citrus Assn. Harllee Packing Inc.
Manatee Fruit Co.
Peerless Fruit Co. Inc.
Some of those packing houses did tomatoes. Some did citrus. Some did produce.
Some did everything.
“Manatee County had about 20 to 25 growers back in early 1900s, but most have gone out of existence,” Thielen said. “Many labels have also been thrown out, which makes them that much more valuable.”
Such might be worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“The rarity of the label and its subject matter drives up the price,” he said. “Kind of like baseball cards.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.