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Kidspace: Stuck on stickers

Collectors latch onto colorful fruit-and-vegetable labels

By Mark M. Sheehan / November 19, 2002

In the early 1960s, Jack Fox was stuck with a slippery problem. The head of the United Fruit Company's Chiquita division was spending a fortune advertising bananas - and all the other banana companies were delighted!

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Why? Because they were getting free advertising. To shoppers, all bananas looked alike. Who could tell the difference between Chiquita, Dole, Del Monte?

The bold solution: Put the company's name, or "brand" onto every bunch of bananas. Chiquita's solution has been delighting kids and collectors ever since.

Almost from the time they first appeared, in 1963, the blue-and-yellow ovals attracted attention. Other banana producers quickly followed suit.

But banana labels were just the beginning. In the late 1980s, another type of sticker began to appear on fruits and vegetables: little ovals with numbers on them. Do you know what they're for?

The stickers, called "Pseals" by collectors, are "PLUs," short for "price look-up labels." Numbers on the PLUs help checkout clerks tell the difference between Fuji and Gala apples, or vine-ripened tomatoes from hydroponic ones.

For many other folks, produce stickers and banana labels are much more than inventory management and marketing tools. For them, the stickers help turn mundane trips to the grocery store into a treasure hunt. They are glimpses into a world of color, variety, changing seasons, and geography.

Sticker and label collectors buy the labeled produce (never simply peel off the labels), paste the stickers into three-ring binders, and scan them onto their websites. No one knows how many people collect produce labels, but worldwide they number at least in the hundreds and probably in the thousands.

"Everyone laughs at me when they hear what I collect," says Katie Foster, who edits and publishes a bimonthly newsletter about produce labels. So many people laugh that she calls her publication, "Please Stop Snickering."

"You just have to wait for people to stop snickering before you can go on to tell them what's so interesting about the stickers," Ms. Foster says. She collects produce stickers from all over the world.

"The last time I checked," she says, "I had over 15,000 Pseals." Her collection is carefully organized into notebooks that fill more than eight feet of shelf space. Her collection is by no means the biggest. Some of the largest collections are in Europe. In fact, about 20 percent of those subscribing to Foster's newsletter live overseas.

It's a fairly new hobby. Foster got interested in it 11 years ago when she saw a small display of colorful labels at a stamp-collectors' meeting. In 1992, the first Pseal convention was held in St. Louis. The first European banana-label convention was in Munich, Germany, last year. Starting Nov. 29, a special four-month exhibit will feature banana labels at Berlin-Dahlem's Botanical Museum.

Most produce-label fans became interested in the stickers through other types of collecting. Foster, an avid stamp collector, brings many of the disciplines and paraphernalia of that hobby to her pursuit of fruit labels. The same plastic pages used in stamp albums are often used for sticker collections.

"I got interested in it through bird-watching," says Joan Weinmayr, a collector from Lexington, Mass. Years ago, on a bird-watching trip to Mexico, a friend told her about collecting banana labels. She was hooked. Ms. Weinmayr and her daughter Annie (then in junior high) began collecting stickers. Annie is now finished with college and grad school, but the two still share an interest in produce labels.

What's the attraction?

The labels are colorful, especially the larger ones found on melons and squashes. Banana labels may list the country of origin, providing a mini geography lesson. The seals may even include the name of the grower's farm. And labels change with the seasons, so collectors can search out new ones every year, or even every few weeks.