A perfectly ripe tomato is a classic summer joy. But did you know that the growing of tomatoes has ties to many aspects of our history and culture? Curator of Agriculture and the Environment Debra Reid uses our collections to reveal the many facets of the tomato.
The tomato -- a little fruit -- has big lessons to teach.
Tomatoes Growing in a Home Garden, circa 1915 / THF252180
First, yes, that’s right. Tomatoes are, biologically, a fruit – a berry that matures on a flowering plant. As this circa 1915 stereograph explains, “at first they were only small green things that grew where the blossoms dropped off.” Yet, the small green fruit grew into a plump, juicy “culinary vegetable,” considered such because of its low sugar content. (For example, processors transformed the fruit into a spicy vegetable sauce – catsup! – the savory contrast to sweet fruit sauces like apple butter.)
The image above shows a boy named Bob and his two sisters amidst the tomato plants they raised from seed, proudly displaying plants loaded with fruit. The Keystone View Company included an educational message on the back of the stereograph to engage children with growing fruits and vegetables. Bob and his sisters planned to share their finest tomatoes with others during their school garden show. They became role models for other students sprouting seeds and planting seedlings and then weeding and watering their crops.
By growing tomatoes, these children learned about domestication, the process by which humans select seed from bigger or tastier fruits or from plants that survive a disease or a drought. They cultivate these seeds (planting, weeding, harvesting, saving seed, and replanting year after year). This results in cultivars, each with different shapes, textures, colors, flavors. Over generations, humans have created more than 10,000 tomato cultivates by saving seed from their best tomatoes.
Why do tomatoes come in so many different shapes, sizes and colors?
Tomatoes in the background and white eggplant in the foreground of the wheelbarrow. Photograph by Debra Reid, taken Saturday, August 15, 2020, at the kitchen garden at Firestone Farm.
Evolution resulted in distinctive varieties, but humans have also picked good-tasting fruits to propagate. (See how many different cultivars this proud gardener grew in the mid-1940s!)
The historic gardens in Greenfield Village include heritage cultivars documented in historic sources and saved through traditional seed saving. Three tomatoes often grown at Firestone Farm (pictured above) include Red Brandywine, Oxheart and Yellow Pear.
As demand for quality seeds grew during the second half of the 19th century, commercial seed businesses flourished. Companies such as Hiram Sibley & Co. contracted with growers to produce seed in clearly marked packages for customers to purchase. In addition to illustrations of the cultivar, the packet included descriptions of the qualities of the fruit, as well as best practices of cultivation (often in more than one language).
Noted plant breeder Luther Burbank (1849–1926) crossed varieties to create hybrid cultivars that did not exist in nature. He sought disease resistance as well as a meaty tomato that had more pulp than seed – the meatier the tomato, the heartier the sauce! Some of Burbank’s varieties are still sold today.
Charles C. Hart Seed Company "Burbank Slicing Tomato" seed packet, circa 2018THF276144/THF276145
Twentieth-century concerns about food quality and nutrition led to the popularity of seeds like “Double Rich,” which were certified organic and yielded tomatoes with twice the Vitamin C!
You can learn more about organic cultivation and its relationship to the plant breeding process from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Organic Integrity Database, and about biotechnology, including hybridization, from this USDA glossary.
Have you ever wondered who grows the tomatoes sold in cans or bottles?
Product label for tomato catsup by Heinz, Noble & Co., 1872-1873THF117246
Anyone with yard space enough can grow tomatoes. Yet, by the time home gardeners like Bob and his sisters planted their crop in the early 20th century, many urban Americans wondered what a vine-ripened tomato tasted like. Why? Because tomatoes could be easily processed into affordable packaged products, and most urban consumers paid clerks in general stores to pick tomatoes off the canned goods shelf.
Workers harvest tomatoes at a Heinz tomato farm near Salem, New Jersey, 1908 / THF252058
Companies like the H. J. Heinz Company contracted with farmers to meet the demand for canned goods and catsup. Their production far exceeded the yields of home gardens. Heinz ensured success by growing seed tomatoes from which the best seeds became the basis for the next year’s crop. The company maintained a network of greenhouses to start the plants that growers put in the ground.
A rapid, careful and organized tomato harvest and transport led to high-quality processed foods. A sense of urgency dictated the harvest season, which began with careful picking and packing of the delicate and perishable fruit in special crates and baskets. It continued as laborers moved the full containers from fields to shipping points. Specially designed wagons and baskets reduced stress on the ripe fruit during transit. Only the best tomatoes made the journey to H.J. Heinz plants. Laborers discarded damaged fruit into barrels and packed others into baskets for shipment.
Shipping tomatoes by boat, H. J. Heinz Company, Salem, New Jersey, circa 1910 THF292108
Transporting tomatoes from truck farms to Heinz processing plants sometimes involved sailing vessels loaded with ripe fruit. At the height of harvest, barges carried loads of tomatoes from farms to processors. Growers in Salem, New Jersey, used the Salem River, a tributary to the Delaware River, to send crops to processing centers near large east coast markets, including Philadelphia and New York.
Mass production of tomatoes did not make home gardening obsolete.
Man inspecting tomato plant in Victory Garden, June 1944 / THF273191
In fact, times of economic hardship increased the general public’s interest in growing their own tomatoes. During the Great Depression, Henry Ford dedicated 1,500 acres of Ford Farms land (between Birmingham and Flat Rock, Michigan) to vegetable gardens. Ford Motor Company employees could sign up to tend a garden plot and retain the produce. Interest in growing tomatoes remained high during World War II, largely through the U.S. government’s Victory Garden program.
Tomatoes have been at the heart of economic conflict between growers and laborers. California growers produced 85 percent of tomatoes canned in the United States by 1940. The larger the fields, the more urgent the need for laborers to harvest a crop that quickly moves from maturity to rot.
Most large-scale growers relied on migrant agricultural laborers at harvest time. They worked for wages determined by the grower and did not receive protection under legislation passed during the New Deal that established minimum wage, maximum hours and workers’ compensation. Instead, growers had legal protection to hire agricultural laborers for wages below the legal minimum and were exempt from compliance with maximum hour and overtime regulations. This meant that laborers had to work until the perishable crop was completely harvested.
Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 news report, Harvest of Shame, increased attention to the plight of U.S. agricultural laborers along the East Coast. Then, in 1965, Filipino-American laborers, members of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, launched a strike to protest pay and working conditions. Latino pickers, members of the United Farm Workers Association, joined with them, and began a five-year strike in and around the grape fields of Delano, California. Consumers increasingly sympathized with the laborers on whom growers of other perishable crops depended.
Mechanical tomato harvesters became commercially viable in the context of this successful strike. When the FMC Corporation introduced its Cascade Tomato Harvester, Model 69W, in 1969, it advertised the machine as the savior of a multi-million-dollar crop and the preserver of the American people’s eating habits. The machine did not eliminate humans from the picking process, but it sped it up. FMC explained that it “picks a crop at the rate of nine tons per hour and cuts the cost of handpicking by 40 to 50 per cent.” Crews who operated the machine included a driver, a mechanic, and ten to twelve individuals who rode on the machine and removed debris from the picked tomatoes. This machine carried crews through midwestern fields, last on a farm near Grant Park, Illinois, between 1983 and 1990, which produced for the Heinz catsup factory in Muscatine, Iowa.
Changing harvesting practices required changing the form of tomatoes, too. Mechanical engineers believed the shape of San Marzano tomatoes would suit harvester belts. Plant breeders spent 30 years cross-pollinating tomatoes (including the San Marzano) to create a new hybrid that tolerated mechanical harvesting. In addition to uniform size and firmness, the fruits had to all mature at the same time on one plant, and they had to come off the vine easily.
Could scientists really slow the aging process? Microbiologists at Calgene, Inc. began research with that goal in mind in 1981. Their work paid off by 1988 with the “first commercially available genetically engineered whole food,” the Flavr Savr™ tomato. Genetic modification had shut down a protein that ripened fruit. It resulted in a tomato that could “last up to four weeks in a non-refrigerated state” (Martineau, pg. 4). An assessment of safety of the genetically modified tomato published in 1992 determined that the Flavr Savr™ remained a tomato and was food. (It bears mentioning that genetically modified tomatoes tend not to be listed in the Cultivated Plant Code because they derive from lines still being developed.)
Page from Safety Assessment of Genetically Engineered Fruits and Vegetables: A Case Study of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato from The Henry Ford's library.
Hungry for more on this little fruit with big impact?
The Acme tomato in the Firestone Farm garden, August 21, 2018. Photograph by Debra A. Reid.
The Henry Ford has resources to help you explore the complete tomato trajectory to date.
See tomatoes growing in three gardens in Greenfield Village (Firestone Farm, Ford Home, and Mattox Farmhouse). And, learn why there are no tomato plants in the Daggett house garden!
Charles, Daniel. Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food. Perseus Publishing, 2001.
Dreyer, Peter. A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank. Rev. Ed. University of California Press, 1985.
Hersey, Mark D. My Work is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. The University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Martineau, Belinda. First Fruit: The Creation of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Food. McGraw Hill, 2001.
Redenbaugh, Keith and William Hiatt, Belinda Martineau, Matthew Kramer, Ray Sheehy, Rick Sanders, Cathy Houck, and Donald Emlay. Safety Assessment of Genetically Engineered Fruits and Vegetables: A Case Study of the Flavr Savr™ Tomato. CRC Press, 1992.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF 145691
What comes to mind when you think of celery (Apium graveolens L. var. dulce)? The essential ingredient in chicken soup, an attractive tomato drink garnish, a low-calorie and healthy snack (with peanut butter added!), or all of the above? The low-calorie nutritious vegetable (in the same family – Apiaceae -- as the herb, parsley) can also lead you on a journey through local history, consumer demand, patent medicine promotion, and commodity chains that spanned the globe.
The ancient Greeks and Romans harvested seeds from wild celery, also called smallage (Apium graveolens L. var. secalinum). It grew best in temperate climates and in moist soils. The plant stalk and leaves had curative properties and seeds had a strong flavor and scent when dried and when processed into essential oil. Europeans included celery seed into tincture recipes in pharmacopeia and cultivated the crop in gardens by the mid-1600s. Over centuries plant-breeders created celery varieties with taller tastier stalks. Thus, celery shifted from a landrace (a plant evolving in a location over time) to a market garden crop by the mid-19th century. Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped make it an international commodity.
The Celery Fields near Grand Rapids, Michigan Agricultural stories start with land access (or lack thereof).
The introduction and expansion of celery cultivation in west central Michigan began in the decades following removal and confinement of indigenous people. Maps indicate the rapid changes that occurred as lands once tended by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi became the property of Euro-Americans.
John Farmer published this map in 1831 and marketed it as “The Emigrant’s Guide; or, Pocket Gazetteer of the Surveyed Part of Michigan.” It included “An improved map of the surveyed part of the Territory of Michigan.” THF136462
The wetlands that once sustained indigenous agriculture became a commodity that other entrepreneurs used to build a celery empire. The map that J. H. Young produced in 1835, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” implies a leisurely pursuit, but instead, developing land into productive farms consumed time and money, and it required brute force. Yet, settlement equated to “progress” and economic growth in the expanding nation and in the territory of Michigan.
J. H. Young, “The Tourist’s Pocket Map of Michigan,” 1835. THF136466
Celery Entrepreneurs Different individuals, all migrants to the area, receive credit for launching the celery enterprise. George Taylor, a Scottish market gardener, reputedly introduced commercial celery growing in the United States when he settled in Kalamazoo in 1855.
Other individuals, all well-heeled citizens of the area received credit as celery pioneers. Joseph Dunkley, an immigrant from Somersetshire, England, established celery fields by 1866 north of Kalamazoo and began shipping his crop via rail in 1880 to eastern and southern markets. Glenn Douglass Stuart received most acclaim -- “Were the lovers of this esculent herb to have a voice he would be crowned what he is already, ‘The Celery King’.” Stuart arrived from Gowanda, New York, via Oberlin, Ohio, in 1883, and by 1892 his biography in the 1892 Portrait and Biographical Record claimed that his firm (based in celery) employed one-quarter of the Kalamazoo population.
Joseph Dunkley’s nursery business, Kalamazoo, Michigan, “Portrait and Biographical Record of Kalamazoo, Allegan andOttawa Counties” (1892), pg. 935.
Lands further west developed as celery fields later. Celery pioneer George Hudson introduced the crop to Grand Haven around 1878, according to the 1892 history of Ottawa, County, Michigan. Hudson immigrated from Devonshire, England, worked as a market gardener in New York, and a lumberman in Spring Lake before settling down to celery in the Grand Rapids area.
Advertisement of George Hudson, “Historical and Business Compendium of Ottawa County, Michigan” (1892), pg. 30; with information on Mr. Hudson (pgs. 192-193).
Laborers in the Fields While some immigrants received accolades for establishing the industry, other individuals received little recognition for the labor they performed. Families who migrated from The Netherlands did the bulk of the work turning wet soils into fertile celery fields between Kalamazoo and Hudsonville. Stereographs and postcards depict the intense physical labor that farm owners and laborers performed.
Keystone Stereograph #149 “Harvesting Celery Blanched by Boards, in Michigan’s Famous Celery Fields, Kalamazoo, Mich. THF145692
Growing Celery Before celery growing became concentrated in the area near Grand Rapids, market gardeners raised the spring vegetable and sold it directly to customers in public markets. The May 15, 1849 issue of The Michigan Farmer included growing directions from an English gardener. He advised planting the seeds in January in a greenhouse (and following with additional plantings in February and March to stagger harvests and meet market demand). Then growers should transplant the seedlings to the garden and protect the plant with a “hand glass.” Growers then earthed up the celery, setting the plants in trenches and hilling the soil around them to shield stalks and leaves from the sun. This reduced the acidic taste and stringiness of the stalks.
Such intensive cultivation practices yielded a crop that met the demand of wealthier customers seeking a spring tonic. A speaker explained the advantages of celery to members of the Kalamazoo Agricultural Society in 1850 -- celery was “peculiarly acceptable because it comes when our horticulture has no other fresh supplies to offer us.” The only other vegetables available at the time included potatoes, turnips, and cabbage. Such intensive
After Harvest Wealthier families displayed the fresh leafy celery stalks in glass vases like this one. The vase held chilled water that helped keep celery stalks fresh during formal dinners. Diners consumed the carefully cultivated stalks raw.
Heinz wagon with Celery Sauce advertising, circa 1879. THF 117121
Celery, the vegetable grown around Grand Rapids, attracted the attention of health food entrepreneurs like Dr. Vincent C. Price (1832-1914). He purchased Tryabita Celery Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1902 and operated it as Price Cereal Food Company. He also produced and marketed Dr. Price’s Wheat Flake Celery Food as essential for the health of vegetarians and the infirm.
Advertising Poster, "Dr. Price's Food, Nature's Food for Man, the Only Wheat Flake Celery Food," circa 1910. THF 96676
Celery growers in the Grand Rapids area helped establish the crop in Sanford, Florida, in 1895. Growers planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. By 1898 they started shipping their crop via refrigerated railcars to northern markets including Philadelphia and New York City. California growers also established celery fields from Kalamazoo stock by the late 1890s, but their harvest reached market during the fall, thus theoretically avoiding direct competition with other growing areas.
Celery did not appear on lists of common garden vegetables because creating a tasty crop required more work than most hobby gardeners wanted to commit to the crop. Thus, celery did not usually appear in photographs or graphic arts that depicted garden baskets laden with potatoes, beets, cabbage, turnips, and other vegetables. This poster from World War I proves an exception, featuring a schoolboy with a healthy bunch of celery in his basket (on the left side, between the onions and the beets).
World War I Poster, "Raised 'Em Myself in my U.S. School Garden," circa 1918. THF112810
As salads became a more common element of American dinners, fresh celery gained more visibility. This advertisement for Heinz vinegar (an essential salad-dressing ingredient) included a bunch of celery, along with another relatively new addition to American dinners, iceberg lettuce (behind the celery and the vinegar bottle).
Advertising Layout Drawing for Heinz Vinegar, 1924. THF292743
Celery reached consumers in packing crates. Storekeepers usually displayed the crop in the crate, as this image of J. F. Ryder’s Market in Maine, shows.
Grower cooperatives helped expand markets during the early 20th century. The Celery Growers of Michigan existed at least by 1935, the year that growers specified six standard packages for celery. This container was a "square" at the ends (8 inches by 8 inches) and it held celery bunches laid flat that were 10 inches to 18 inches in length.
This “square” packing crate likely came full of celery from the farm operated by Ralph Schut, a descendant of Dutch immigrants in Georgetown Township/Hudsonville, aka “Celery Center.”THF173353
Historically, celery was much more than a garnish in your favorite tomato-juice drink.
Heinz Tomato Juice Advertisement, “Talk About Your Aristocracy!,” circa 1935. THF252238
Why are there more tulips in Holland and the Grand Rapids area today than celery? Growers responded to disease affecting their crops and increased competition reducing their market dominant by concentrating their resources on horticulture. Many celery growers already had green houses and operated nurseries, so they diversified their production by adding bedding plants and flowers to their market crops.
What measures do you use to judge whether food is “healthy”? What connections do you see between healthy food and healthy communities? Today the concept of “food security” links nutritious food to individual and community health. This blog features historical resources in the collections of The Henry Ford that help us explore the meaning of “food security.” Many relate to the work of Black agricultural scientist George Washington Carver with Black farm families in and around Tuskegee, Alabama, between the 1890s and 1940s.
What Does "Food Security" Mean to You? A big meal often symbolizes food security. You can almost smell the roast goose (once preferred to turkey) and taste the fresh apples, oranges and bananas in this centerpiece on a family’s holiday table!
Family Seated at Dining Table for a Holiday Meal, circa 1945. THF98738
But does having a big meal on special occasions mean that a person, a family, or a community is “food secure”?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) explains that a person is “food secure” if they have regular access to safe and nutritious food in amounts required for normal growth and development and in quantity and calories needed to maintain an active and healthy life.
Students at this South Carolina school all appear healthy. This implies that they have access to a quantity of nutritious food necessary for normal growth. It also implies that they consume it consistently which helped keep them healthy and better able to complete their schoolwork.
School Teacher and Her Students, Pinehurst Tea Plantation, Summerville, South Carolina, circa 1903. THF115900
Historically, many farm families raised much of the food they needed to survive, including meat, vegetables, grains, and fruit. The Mattox family farmed their own land, and they dedicated time and energy to tending their garden and raising their own beans and sweet corn (as pictured in this photograph). Being responsible for your own food supply required careful planning and hard work year-round because families had to grow, process, preserve, and then prepare and consume what they (and their livestock) ate. As long as everything went according to plan, and no disasters arose, a family might be food secure.
Mattox Family Home in Greenfield Village, 1991. THF45319
Many factors led to food insecurity. This indenture for three orphaned children, William (7 yrs old), Dennis (5 yrs old) and Henry (18 months old), specified that they receive “a sufficiency of food.” What did “sufficiency” mean? Consuming calories might provide energy to work, but calories alone did not (and do not) ensure a healthy life. Furthermore, being unfree made these indentured children dependent on someone else who might have other ideas about what “sufficiency of food” meant.
Indenture for "...Colored Children Named William, Dennis & Henry," July 20, 1866. THF8563
Cotton and Food Insecurity Southern farm families often grew cotton as their cash crop. Farm families could not eat cotton though the seed yielded byproducts used in livestock feed, and oil that became a popular cooking ingredient. Landowners and tenant farmers could strategize how much cotton to grow, and could plant corn to feed their hogs, and could dedicate land for a garden. Yet, many families across the rural South, Black and white alike, farmed cotton, and they received a share of the crop they grew as payment for a year of labor. Owners expected these sharecroppers to focus their energy on the cash crop – cotton - and not spend valuable labor on raising their own food. Instead, families became even more economically insecure by buying inexpensive food on credit.
Many sharecroppers and agricultural laborers in the South lived on a diet of meat (pork), meal (cornmeal) and molasses (processed from either sugar cane or sorghum) – the 3M diet. While pork in its many forms (including lard sandwiches) and cornbread with molasses provided much needed calories, the 3M diet did not deliver nutrients needed to maintain health. Niacin deficiencies led to the debilitating disease, pellagra, which afflicted impoverished people across the South and beyond.
Trade Card for Silver Leaf Lard, Swift & Company, 1870-1900. THF225588
Inadequate supplies of food, and diets lacking in nutrients, undermined food security. Racism also undermined access to adequate foods. Graphic arts advertising southern staples often reinforced racist stereotypes rather than reality – that Black women often held positions of authority as Black cooks who prepared meals for others who could afford fresh foods and a varied and nutritious diet.
Advertising Poster, "Old Fashion Molasses," circa 1900. THF8044
Improving rural health required a revolution that reduced the dependency on cotton and increased the types of crops grown for market. George Washington Carver, the first Black American to hold an advanced degree in agricultural science, used his knowledge to try to convince farmers to improve soils to increase cotton yields, but to also raise additional crops such as sweet potatoes and peanuts.
George Washington Carver's Graduation Photo from Iowa State University, 1893. THF214111
George Washington Carver’s Work with Peanuts Many associate Carver with peanut butter, but his relationship to peanuts far exceeds peanut butter.
A man in Montreal, Canada, secured a U.S. Patent for peanut candy – a paste sweetened with sugar – in 1884. At that time George W. Carver had been living for five years in Kansas working as a cook and laborer. Between 1886 and 1888, after being refused entry into a college in Kansas, Carver homesteaded near Beeler, Kansas.
Alabama, the location of Tuskegee Institute, where Carver went to work in 1896, ranked fourth in peanut production in 1900 behind Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Farmers in these states raised most of the raw product that Northern food processors like H.J. Heinz dry roasted and ground into peanut butter. This Heinz peanut-butter packaging features a blond blue-eyed girl in a grain field holding lilacs. This did not accurately represent southern farm families raising the high-quality crop that Heinz depended on for its “choicest peanuts.”
Trade Card for H.J. Heinz Company, “Mama’s Favorites,” circa 1905. THF215296
As consumer demand for peanut butter increased, production increased. Nutritionists understood the value of peanuts and of peanut butter as an inexpensive source of plant-based protein, fats, minerals and vitamins. Farm families could eat their own home-grown peanuts but could also find a ready market for them.
Women grinding peanuts into peanut butter at Heinz. THF292973
Tuskegee, Alabama was located just north of the peanut-growing region of southeastern Alabama. Carver set about to convince Black landowning farmers in and around Tuskegee to take advantage of the market opportunity. Orchestrating a more complete overhaul of cotton-dependent Alabama agriculture required convincing white landowners to free sharecroppers from requirements to grow only cotton. Others sought a revolution in civil rights through legal means. Even though many criticized the self-help message, families who ate better could channel new-found energy toward securing civil rights and social justice.
Carver appealed to his constituents in writing. He linked concerns about health and nutrition to economic independence in his May 1917 pamphlet, “How to Grow the Peanut.”
Bulletin, How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption, 1917. THF213329
Carver described the peanut as having “limitless possibilities.” The “nuts possess a wider range of food values than other legumes.” THF213331
Carver described 105 ways to prepare the peanut – ground, boiled, roasted, and as a main ingredient in soups, salads, candy, and replacement for chicken, and other meats. THF213335
Crop Innovations Carver applied his life-long fascination with plants to identify crops in addition to the peanut that had the potential to displace cotton. He used this weeder to collect specimens. He studied their molecular composition, extracted byproducts, and devised new uses for them.
Weeder Used by George Washington Carver at Greenfield Village, 1942; Gift of Henry and Clara Ford. THF152234.
Carver promoted crops through short publications that stressed financial and food security.
Some crops occurred naturally, the wild plum, for instance, which landowning farmers might have on their property but that they undervalued as a food source.
Bulletin, “43 Ways to Save the Wild Plum Crop,” 1917. THF288049
During World War I, Carver promoted crops that Alabama farmers grew, but that could be processed into alternatives to wheat flour. THF290275
During the 1920s, Carver urged farmers to grow even more crops that they could eat, such as sweet potatoes.
How the Farmer Can Save His Sweet Potatoes, 1925. THF37735
During the 1930s, as economic conditions worsened during the Great Depression, Carver published a pamphlet focused on growing the tomato, a vitamin- and mineral-rich food source.
Bulletin, “How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table,” 1936. THF288043
Carver, Food Byproducts, and Food Security Carver’s research into plant byproducts and new foods from farm crops caught the attention of Henry Ford.
Carver and Clara and Henry Ford corresponded about topics as practical as gravy made from soy and peanut flour, and as personal as digestive systems.
Letter from George Washington Carver to Clara Ford, March 19, 1940. THF213553
Henry Ford recognized Carver’s inspiration by naming the Nutrition Laboratory in his honor on 21 July 1942.
George Washington Carver and Edsel Ford at the Carver Nutrition Laboratory, Dearborn, Michigan, 1942. THF213823
Peanut Oil: A Byproducts Many Uses Carver explained that peanut oil (separated from peanut paste) was “one of the best-known vegetable oils.” You can see oil, sitting atop the peanut paste, if you look for “natural peanut butter” at your local grocery store. Food chemists experimented with how to prevent the oil from separating from the ground peanut paste. Preventing separation requires hydrogenation, which changes the chemical composition of unsaturated fats and turns them into saturated fats. Heinz drafted advertisements to promote the new hydrogenated peanut butter to consumers as this example indicates.
The varied uses of peanut oil that Carver promoted increased market opportunities for impoverished farmers which increased their food security. To that end, Carver experimented with peanut oil as a rub to relieve the discomfort that polio patients suffered. While science could not link the peanut oil itself to positive benefits, the process of messaging the oil into the patient reduced pain by manipulating the muscles.
Photographic print, Austin Curtis, George Washington Carver, Henry Ford, Wilbur Donaldson and Frank Campsall Inspect Bottles of Peanut Oil, Tuskegee Institute, March 1938. THF213794
Healthy Communities Building healthy communities started with individuals but grew through collective effort. Farm families, schools, businesses, church groups, and investors each committed resources to the cause. National intervention furthered local goals. The 1946 National School Lunch Act increased access to good food for all school children, not just those who could help themselves.
Photographic Print, Cafeteria at George Washington Carver School, Richmond Hill, Georgia, circa 1947. THF135671
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
Luther Burbank overcame nature’s limitations to create more than 800 plants the world had never seen.
Burbank experimented with plant reproduction to change the traits of plants. He considered himself a student in “Nature's school” and a lifelong learner. Through the power of observation, Burbank overcame the limits of nature to create new varieties of plants.
Luther Burbank’s plant hybridization experiments led him to develop a plumcot: a cross between the plum and the apricot. THF275310
Luther Burbank used methods like selective breeding, cross-pollination, and hybridization in his experiments. In one famous example, he crossed a plum and an apricot to create a brand-new fruit: the plumcot. In another, he created a cactus with no spikes!
Burbank’s plant creations brought him fame. He amazed more formally trained scientists, and crowds of people showed up at his experimental gardens. The media described Burbank as a “plant wizard,” but he rejected that label. He argued that anyone could do what he did.
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Luther Burbank, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.
Learn more about Burbank’s life and work in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environment exhibit explores
Grafting – a technique Burbank used to clone fruit varieties
The process of creating the famous Russet Burbank potato
Tools used by Luther Burbank in his work
Burbank’s work tracing the origins of corn to an ancient wild grass
Florida oranges on grocery store shelves in Minnesota. Fresh blueberries from Chile at fruit markets in New England -- in the middle of winter. Beef processed and packaged in Texas purchased and consumed by families in the Carolinas. Whether we realize it or not, our relationship with food is directly dependent on the transportation industry. And it has been for nearly 200 years.
“As the U.S. became more urbanized, the demand for fresh food shipped over long distances increased,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford. Before widespread adoption of refrigerated railcars after the Civil War, such variety of eats was unfathomable. People ate what was grown in their immediate area. Farming was a local endeavor. “Refrigerated cars revolutionized the agriculture industry,” said Anderson. A growing desire to move processed and packaged beef hundreds of miles, rather than a whole herd of living cattle, sparked the larger movement to cool things down inside the railcars.
At first, refrigerator cars primarily shipped meat from Chicago to cities in the eastern United States. THF110235
The Henry Ford has a refrigerator car, built in 1924 for Fruit Growers Express, in its collection. Cooling was provided by ice, loaded through roof hatches into large compartments at each end of the car. Fans, driven by the car’s axles, helped to circulate the cool air. “I consider our Fruit Growers Express car to be the cornerstone of our food transportation collection,” said Anderson. “Refrigerator cars like this changed the American diet, permitting fresh produce and meat to be shipped anywhere in the U.S.” Discover how West Coast fruit growers marketed their produce to the new markets opened up by refrigerated rail transport in this blog post.
Refrigerator cars enabled farmers in regions with extended growing seasons to market fresh produce, like California grapefruit, year-round across the country. THF295680
And while we’re talking about moving fruit and keeping it fresh, ponder this: When McDonald’s introduced sliced apples to its menu in 2011, it quickly became the largest purchaser of apple slices at 60 billion pounds per year. Give some thought to who grows all those apples and how they get where they need to go.
George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute, 1939 THF213730
George Washington Carver’s commitment to knowledge, serving the community, and making a difference drove his work as an influential agricultural scientist.
Carver loved plants as a child and studied them his entire life. Despite the many challenges he faced, he earned degrees in agricultural science and gained international recognition for his work.
In 1896, Carver began his 47-year career at Tuskegee Institute, a university in Alabama committed to educating African-Americans. There, he taught agricultural science, managed the school’s experimental farm, and researched better farming practices.
One of the many bulletins Carver produced to help southern farmers THF288047
Carver shared his knowledge through practical instruction, “how-to” publications, and a mobile classroom. His research became the basis for lessons on improving the health and nutrition of the soil as well as the health and well-being of people and the livestock they tended.
Carver understood that farm families who raised cash crops like cotton had little time to grow food for themselves and no extra money to buy it. He identified hundreds of new uses for undervalued food crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes, which increased market opportunities and improved diets.
An interactive digital experience in Henry Ford Museum features the stories of Luther Burbank, Rachel Carson, and George Washington Carver.
Learn more about Carver’s remarkable career in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where a new digital experience in the Agriculture & the Environmentexhibit explores
Bulletins produced by Carver to help southern farm families
Carver’s work to create nutrient-rich soil needed to grow healthy crops
Weeds – an untapped food source Carver liked to call “nature’s vegetables”
New products Carver developed from crops southern farmers already grew
THF213753 / George Washington Carver at Dedication of George Washington Carver Cabin, Greenfield Village, 1942.
On this day in 1946, George Washington Carver Recognition Day was designated by a joint act of the U.S. Congress and proclaimed by President Harry S. Truman. Carver died just three years earlier on this day in 1943.
Immediately, public officials and the news media began to celebrate his life and create lasting reminders of his work in education, agricultural science, and art. Carver, mindful of his own legacy, had already established the Carver Foundation during the 15th annual Negro History Week, on February 14, 1940, to carry on his research at Tuskegee. It seems fitting to pay respects to Carver on his death day by taking a closer look at the floral beautis that Carver so loved, and that we see around us, even during winter.
Carver recalled that, “day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beautis” [Kremer, ed., pg. 20]. He believed that studying nature encouraged investigation and stimulated originality. Experimentation with plants “rounded out” originality, freedom of thought and action. THF213747 / George Washington Carver Holding Queen Anne's Lace Flowers, Greenfield Village, 1942.
Carver wanted children to learn how to study nature at an early age. He explained that it is “entertaining and instructive, and is the only true method that leads up to a clear understanding of the great natural principles which surround every branch of business in which we may engage” (Progressive Nature Studies, 1897, pg. 4). He encouraged teachers to provide each student a slip of plain white or manila paper so they could make sketches. Neatness mattered. As Carver explained, the grading scale “only applies to neatness, as some will naturally draw better than others.”
Neatness equated to accuracy, and with accuracy came knowledge. Farm families could vary their diet by identifying additional plants they could eat, and identify challenges that plants faced so they could correct them and grow more for market.
Carver understood how the landscape changed between the seasons, and exploring during winter was just as important as exploring during summer. Thus, it is appropriate to apply Carver’s directions about observing nature to the winter landscape around us, and to draw the winter botanicals that we see, based on directions excerpted from Carver’s Progressive Nature Studies (1897). (Items in parentheses added to prompt winter-time nature study - DAR and DE, 3 Jan 2018.)
Leaves – Are they all alike? What plants retain their leaves in winter? Draw as many different shaped leaves as you can.
Stems – Are stems all round? Draw the shapes of as many different stems as you can find. Of what use are stems? Do any have commercial value?
Flowers (greenhouses/florists) – Of what value to the plant are the flowers?
Trees – Note the different shapes of several different trees. How do they differ? (Branching? Bark?) Which trees do you consider have the greatest value?
Shrubs – What is the difference between a shrub and a tree?
Fruit (winter berries) – What is fruit? Are they all of value?
Carver worked in greenhouses and encouraged others to use greenhouses and hot beds to start vegetables earlier in the planting system. The sooner farm families had fresh vegetables, the more quickly they could reduce the amount they had to purchase from grocery stores, and the healthier the farm families would be.
THF213726 / George Washington Carver in a Greenhouse, 1939.
In 1910, Carver included directions for work with nature studies and children’s gardens over twelve months. Selections from “January” suitable for nearly all southern states” included:
Begin in this month for spring gardening by breaking the ground very deeply and thoroughly
Clear off and destroy trash (plant debris) that might be a hiding place for noxious insects.
Cabbages can be put in hot beds, cold frames, or well-protected places.
Grape vines, fruit trees, hedges and ornamental trees should receive attention (pruning, fertilizing)
Both root and top grafting of trees should be done.
THF213314 / Pamphlet, "Nature Study and Children's Gardens," by George Washington Carver, circa 1910.
Carver illustrated his own publications, basing his botanical drawings on what he observed in his field work. He conveyed details that his readers needed to know, be they school children tending their gardens, or farm families trying to raise better crops.
THF213278 / Pamphlet, "Some Possibilities of the Cow Pea in Macon County, Alabama," by George Washington Carver, 1910 / page 12.
Edible wild botanicals, also known as weeds, appeared in late winter. Carver encouraged everyone from his students at Tuskegee to Henry Ford to consumer more wild greens year round, but especially in late winter when greens became a welcome respite from root crops and preserved meats which dominated winter fare. His pamphlet, Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace, prepared during World War II, featured numerous drawings of edible wild botanicals, also called weeds. Americans could contribute to the war effort by diversifying their diets with these greens that sprouted in the woods during the late winter and early spring. Carver illustrated each wild green, including dandelion, wild lettuce, curled dock, lamb’s quarter, and pokeweed. Following the protocol used in botanical drawing, he credited the source, as he did with several illustrations identified as “after C.M. King.” This referenced the work of Charlotte M. King, who taught botanical drawing at Iowa State University during the time of Carver’s residency there, and who likely influenced Carver’s approach to botanical drawing. King’s original of the “Small Pepper Grass” drawing appeared in The Weed Flora of Iowa (1913), written by Carver’s mentor, botanist Louis Hermann Pammel.
THF213586 / Pamphlet, "Nature's Garden for Victory and Peace," by George Washington Carver, March 1942. To learn more about Carver, consult these biographies:
Hersey, Mark D. My Work is that of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver: A Biography. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Greenwood, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. ed. George Washington Carver in His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
To read more about Carver and Nature Study, see:
Carver, G. W. Progressive Nature Studies. (Tuskegee Institute Print, 1897), Digital copy available at Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/98621#page/132/mode/1up
Harbster, Jennifer. “George Washington Carver and Nature Study,” blog, March 2, 2015, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2015/03/george-washington-carver-and-nature-study/
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Deborah Evans is Master Presenter at The Henry Ford.
Before the Age of Steam, American farmers hand-threshed wheat or oats with a flail. Threshing machines powered by horses or portable steam engines increased daily production of threshing by a hundred times.
In the 1800s, the large number of horses required for farming consumed a lot of grain. Starting in the 1860s, farmers began threshing grain to feed those horses with a cousin of the "iron horse" - a steam traction engine like the Port Huron Thresher shown above.
As a Michigan farm boy, Henry Ford recorded his first sight of a traction engine: "I remember that engine as though I had seen it only yesterday, for it was the first vehicle other than horse drawn that I had ever seen. It was intended to drive threshing machines and power sawmills and was simply a portable engine and a boiler mounted on wheels." The steam traction engine inspired Ford to design and manufacture automobiles. To other rural people it represented a grand transition in American agriculture, and a new community activity.
It seems an odd notion, but as the days grow shorter and autumn’s colors begin to creep into the trees and hedgerows of Greenfield Village, the geese take wing in to their formations, and the smell of wood smoke fills the air, the connection to the past seems even stronger. For those of us who work in the living history areas of the Village, there is also a strange pressing need associated with this change of the season to begin the preparations for the long winter ahead.
At the two main living history sites in the Village, Daggett Farm and Firestone Farm, the slower pace of the long summer days begins to quicken as the harvest season approaches. For our visitors, it’s a fascinating view of preparations and work with similar goals, but with very different sets of tools and technology available to achieve these goals. The colonial Daggett family and the Victorian Firestones both needed to harvest their crops, store away vegetables and fruits, and prepare and preserve a winter’s meat supply. And, everybody made cider!