By John R. Medley, Jr.
Sweet potatoes today are usually packed in cardboard boxes, but were originally packed in burlap bags. They were then packed in bushel baskets or crates starting sometime during the 1880's. Some Texas "old-timers" might recall the use of the "old Texas long box." Shipping labels designed to attract the attention of produce buyers at wholesale auctions, fit the end panels of the wire bound crates. "Images of the Sweet Potato -- An American Art Form" (limited edition) by R. John Medley, Jr., is a 46 page nostalgic compilation of colorful and funny graphics dating from 1880 through the early 1970's. This unique art form was designed to sell a product that clearly was the pride of its producers.
In addition to four-legged animals, rural settings and attractive young women, a few sweet potato crate labels referred to dice and the gambling practice known as "shooting craps." Little Joe Cured Sweet Potato crate label was registered in the U.S. Patent Office in 1921 by Pittsburg Storage Company, Pittsburg, TX. Other sweet potato crate labels include Bull Dog, Harold's Best (Harold Quebedeaux, Mansura, LA), Little Joe, Louisiana Belle, Penick (J.R. Penick, Vardaman, MS), Pride of Sunset, Possum, Red-Dog, Sweet Lue, Yam Patch and The Yam What Am (J.J. Corley & Son, Grand Saline, TX) just to name a few.
Collectors of sweet potato memorabilia and students of Southern advertising art should find this publication to be of special interest. Ada Fitzsimmons, Editor and Publisher of Paper Pile Quarterly, said that, "Images of the Sweet Potato is a publication of interest to collectors of crate labels, black memorabilia collectors and to students of black history. I think the labels would be a valuable teaching tool for teachers of American history generally and for special courses in black history. These labels serve as historical documents of a particular historical period."
Regarding the use of labels depicting racial stereotyping, Mr. Medley said that, "The most notable of all design factors concerning the art of the sweet potato label was the extensive use of the racial stereotype. At the time of its actual usage, racial stereotyping in American advertising art was a common practice." Today, the use of such materials to advertise or market a commodity is inappropriate. Rather than to criticize, excuse or justify such usage, Medley chooses to view it in retrospect as a peculiar aspect of Americana. Order while supplies last!