The New Gastronome
Unwrapping The Golden Apples
A Colorful History Of Orange Wrappers
by Lisa Schultz
by Lisa Schultz
The citrus industry was the pride of the Sicilian economy between the 19th and 20th century. Oranges and lemons became the most popular symbols of the “island in the sun,” a trademark that was recognized around the world, immortalized in poetry, literature, and art.
This worldview of a happy and fruitful Sicily was largely the provenance of brilliant marketing and product packaging that literally surrounded the fruits. Sicilian orange wrappers provide particularly fertile ground for sociologists, anthropologists, art, and food historians alike, as a conduit for transmitting social values and cultural trends: wrappers promoted good health, they showcased current events, fashion trends, advances in transportation and technology, and reflected changing gender attitudes, just to name a few. Above all, orange wrappers were a medium for communicating a sense of place and a way of life.
For many centuries, oranges were consumed locally, or transported short distances by horse drawn carriages, sailing ships and river barges. Citrus fruits, unlike most other fruits, do not ripen once picked from the tree. Because the fruit needed to be picked, packed, and shipped at the peak of ripeness, long journeys often resulted in significant loss due to spoilage.
“While American wrappers remained simple, European wrappers began to display a vast array of colorful images.”
Transportation was especially challenging for citrus rich Sicily; those oranges that did make it up to the mainland and then on to European cities were considered a luxury. As a result, the fruit remained an expensive and rare commodity. Even when the expansion of the railways and development of steamer ships reduced the travel time and made shipping bulk cargo more economical, mold was still an issue. It only took one infected orange to quickly spoil the whole shipment.
Exporters in Italy and Spain had begun wrapping their oranges in squares of plain white, or pastel blue or rose colored tissue paper in the 1850’s. The wrapper paper protected the oranges from contact and reduced the spread of mold. Italian immigrants to America working in the citrus industry likely brought this knowledge with them, and the use of wrappers was quick to spread in the States. While American wrappers remained simple, European wrappers began to display a vast array of colorful images. Because the orange was still wrapped in paper when it was sold at the market, it acted as an important source of information for consumers.
A thin layer of wax applied to the fruit eventually replaced the need for tissues; by the 1960’s, they had became relatively obsolete in the United States. However, the use of beautifully decorated wraps continued to flourish uninterrupted in Italy, and remained particularly popular for the uniquely Sicilian blood oranges. Since all three blood orange varieties tend to be highly variable regarding both skin and flesh color, wrappers became a necessary tool to distinguish them from the standard, blonde variety.
Early Years: Historical Nostalgia, Tradition, and Place
The imagery used on orange wrappers in the earliest phase reflects a love of the countryside and a desire for the simplicity of rural life. Wrappers invoked specifically Sicilian traditions and were intrinsically tied to place. Sicilian oranges had an established history of quality, setting them apart from the relative newcomers from America. A sense of authenticity, and subsequent quality of the product was linked through nostalgic imagery of the islands past.
If there was a figure in the scene it was always dressed in traditional Sicilian costume, landscape always included Mount Etna, identifiable by the plumes of smoke emanating from the top. The mountain both confirms the Sicilian location, and gives reference to the source of the oranges particular high quality and superb taste. The citrus fruits that filled decorative horse-drawn carretti could be none other than the bounty of Sicily; mythological figures pictured were only those with direct ties to Sicilian identity (Vulcan at his forge, Pluto and Persephone, Sirens, Cyclops).
Oranges were still expensive and special, reserved for an elite market. The packaging reflects this. Each orange was individually wrapped to appear like a special gift, then placed in rows in ornately decorated wooden crates to make them more attractive when they reached their destination and were auctioned off into the markets.
Golden Age of Orange Wrappers
After the First World War, the export trade had expanded greatly and oranges were no longer just a wintertime luxury; continuing advances in transportation were making citrus fruit more widely available. As more producers entered the lucrative marketplace industry, competition increased in the 20’s and 30’s. This period is called the “golden age of citrus papers” not only due to the increased worldwide quantity of wrapper use, but the term also applies to the quality of the images that were being produced.
The period between the wars marked an integral turning point in the development of visual culture; the role of visual messages was growing quickly and western popular culture was becoming strongly visual. The end of one era and the beginning of another, the ephemera produced during this time might be seen to be poised on the cusp where an age of utopian nostalgia and a new culture of mass consumerism intersect.
“There is a long metaphorical tradition linking women and fruits…”
The soft, pastel palette and intricacy of the previous compositions were abandoned in favor of bright and bold colors, clear, straight-forward messages, and catchy images – all efforts to immediately connect with a viewer, draw in their eye, stop a customer in their tracks. “Wrapper designers favored a clever framing device in their compositions, a sort of porthole view to an idyllic scene from another time; of Mt. Etna spewing oranges, a snake wrapped tree of ‘golden apples’ with Mount Etna implying Sicily as the Garden of Eden, The Three Graces from Botticelli’s famous Primavera, or the rural peasant dressed in traditional costume with a fruit filled basket.
Some wrappers during this period also displayed manifestations of Fascist propaganda, such as the imperial eagle or even this wrapper with the image of an Ascaro, the African soldiers who fought alongside the Italians in colonial war with Ethiopia in 1935.
An increasingly dominant feature that begins in this period is using sex appeal to sell products. There is a long metaphorical tradition linking women and fruits; oranges were the sacred fruit of Venus the goddess of love; they were objects of desire from the Garden of Hesperides and objects of temptation in the Garden of Eden. Oranges carried sacred overtones in religion, Sicilian folklore and fairytales. Even the name for orange, arancia, links it to the female gender. So, it is not surprising that the golden fruits were often presented to the consumer in the hands of a goddess or country maiden.
In the late 30’s, a famous series of exuberant magazine covers and ads designed by Gino Boccasile featured the same voluptuous woman promoting distinctly Italian products from olive oil, salami, to pasta, and even oranges! His sensuous renderings would become a symbol of feminine beauty in Italy, and of Italian abundance in general; tanned, bountiful women with opulent curves representing (or modeled after) the rolling hills of the landscape, her youth is a symbol of the health and vitality of rural Italy itself. Female figures holding up a sample of the golden fruit, ripe for the consumers taking, became one of the most popular themes on orange wrappers utilized right up to the present day.
The evolution of imagery on ephemera occurring in this period represents a wider cultural shift. Images that once promoted rural values and historically nostalgic landscapes, begin to reflect a movement away from the past, toward the future, propelled by images that would resonate with daily life, propagated through mass media and popular culture. The vision that Sicily wants to show to the world is no longer tied exclusively to the past … but is engaged in the here and now.
Post WWII: Mass Media, Popular Culture, and Personal Nostalgia
The effects of mass media and popular culture on wrapper designs are increasingly apparent after World War II. A protagonist in the new consumer era helping to shape the moods and aspirations of the period was cinema. Italian cinema was strongly dominated by Hollywood imports; goddesses from the silver screen filled the pages of fan magazines, becoming role models for many young Italian men and women.
Southern Italians identified with popular Italian dive such as Sofia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida because of their humble social origins. So, it should be no surprise that citrus exporters would utilize these likenesses on their orange wrappers. These were the homegrown, flesh and blood versions of Italian abundance that proliferated a generation before. But unlike their more rural ancestors, the images now portray modern, urban bombshells donning current hairdos, dresses, and jewelry.
“Sicilian orange wrappers also recorded important historical events that had specific national ties…”
Weekly magazines, comic books, fumetti, also boomed during the 50’s and orange wrappers never missed displaying the latest cultural trends. Wrappers displayed current popular fashion; the first nylon stockings, miniskirts, and bikinis, even the Vespa, all were documented.
But it was the arrival of television in 1954 that arguably had the greatest impact on modern visual culture. The animated characters seen in the little stories and cartoons of Carosello became iconic, widely recognized and loved by children and adults alike. As such, figures like Topo Gigio and Calimero soon made their way onto orange wrappers.
Television captured the attention of the entire world with global broadcasts of events such as the lunar landing in 1969, which also became immortalized on wrappers; oranges taking on ever-more imaginative roles in space and on the moon.
Sicilian orange wrappers also recorded important historical events that had specific national ties, such as touting the Italians who were the first to reach the K2 summit in 1954, or the heroic efforts involved in the rescue of the stranded survivors of Umberto Nobile’s historic arctic expedition, in 1928, worldwide.
Orange marketers often reused popular images they had previously used in the past, images that would in turn, summon fond memories from their customers’ youth or childhoods.
Images of classic Disney characters, Mickey Mouse, Jiminy Cricket, Lassie, King Kong, characters from youthful decades have all made appearances and reappearances. The fact that so many of these wrappers survive in collections today is a testament to their effectiveness, and also indicates that people were reluctant to throw them away. You cannot return to the past, but you can experience it again, simply by eating an orange!
What these simple throwaway ephemeral examples of orange wrappers illustrate is adaptability, malleability, a whimsical infusion of styles, of popular culture, past and present, into something that is unique as the fruits they contain. Orange wrappers effectively exported a strong sense of Italian national pride to their customers abroad, infused with Sicilian communal identity. Italy has always been associated with a culture of artistry and craftsmanship. Orange wrappers were reminders that the vibrant culture of Italy continues to permeate through all layers of life –the cultural authenticity of the past continues into the present.
1 I owe a debt of gratitude to Romana Gardani and Professor Antonino Catara for opening their homes to me and sharing their vast knowledge of citrus history and ephemera. They generously allowed me to freely photograph their extensive collections, of which only a small sample are shown here.
2 David Karp, “Orange Wrappers”, in Food in the Arts: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1998, ed. Harlan Walker (Oxford: Prospect Books, 1999): 119.
3 No where else in the Mediterranean or in America have these oranges found the right environmental conditions to show their genetic characteristics such as their intense red color and the perfect sugar-acid ratio. This means that the most reliable blood orange production on a commercial scale is limited to the Sicilian area around Mt. Etna. As a result of this unique link to geographical location the Arancia Rossa di Sicila is recognized with Protected Geographical Indication (IGP) status; these oranges can only be grown in a strictly limited area on the eastern side of Sicily, south of Mount Etna. The only varieties allowed are Tarocco, Moro, and Sanguinello. Information on the taxonomy and characteristics of each variety of blood orange was found online at http://citruspages.free.fr/bloodoranges.html.
4 In the 1881 Esposizione Nazionale in Milan the ornately decorated Sicilian carretto was part of an exhibit on Sicilian folk art. From that moment on it represented “Sicily” to the world.
5 Jonathan Dunnage, Twentieth-century Italy: A Social History. (Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, 2002): 165.
6 Television had actually arrived in Italy in 1939 but all transmissions were blocked when Italy entered WWII, only to be resumed 9 years after the war ended, in 1954. Television reached Sicily a few years later still.