Tomato History     (from wild fruit to Franken-veggie)            

 Beginnings in Europe
     Tomatoes originated in Andean South America in the coastal valleys of Ecuador, Chile, and Peru.  Eight varieties of wild tomatoes can still be found growing there today.  The wild plants produce small cherry-sized fruits on a creeping vine.  Fruit colors can be red, green, or yellow, with only the red being edible.   There is no record of domestication of these plants by the early local inhabitants, but the Aztecs of Central America were cultivating descendants of wild tomatoes they called xitomatl by the time the Spanish explorers arrived in the 1500’s.

     The conquistadores evidently found the fruit appealing, for they quickly distributed the tomato back home in Spain and throughout their colonies in North America, the Caribbean, and the Philippines.  The pomi d’oro (golden apple) adapted easily to the Mediterranean soil and climate of southern Europe and  grew especially well in the Naples-Salerno region. Italian peasants there soon discovered ways to preserve the fruit by sun drying and by canning “Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola” (Spanish tomato sauce).
     The tropical tomato adapted less readily to the harsher climes of northern Europe.  Many northerners were also worried by the tomato’s resemblance to deadly nightshade a.k.a. belladonna.  Believing that witches used belladonna to evoke werewolves, the Germans named the tomatoes "wolf peach."  The famous taxonomist Linnaeus  took note of this legend and named the species Lycopersicon esculentum, "edible wolf peach".    John Gerard, an English barber-surgeon, published a herbal in 1597 warning that the tomato fruit was poisonous even ingested in small quantities.  Gerard's book was widely influential and most Brits in England and the American colonies deemed the fruit unfit for culinary uses.   It was the mid-1700s before tomatoes were commonly eaten in Britain.   Its acceptance was sealed when Hannah Glasse's popular British cookbook, The Art of Cookery, included a tomato recipe in its 1758 edition. 

Beginnings in America

        In North America, early on, Carolinians grew tomatoes on their plantations, while the citizens of New Orleans relished the tomato as much as their relatives back in France did.  Cajuns used it in their gumbos and jambalayas and by 1779 had invented the all-purpose ketchup. Their French kinfolk in Maine combined tomatoes with local seafood.  In 1812 a recipe for tomato ketchup was published by ex-colonist James Mease living in Nova Scotia.
        A famous Virginian, noted Francophile and experimental farmer, Thomas Jefferson, grew tomatoes at his Monticello farm and served them fresh with “French fries”  dosed with plentiful French wine.  In 1781 he included tomatoes among the common vegetable found in Virginia gardens in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and he grows them in his own Monticello garden in 1809 after he retired from public service.
 Tomato recipes from Monticello include gumbos, preserves, pickles, and omelets. Jefferson must also have had a taste for Italian cooking, for it’s alleged he smuggled a pasta machine into the country.   Jefferson's cousin, Mary Randolph, included a recipe for ketchup in her 1824 published cookbook The Virginia Housewife. 
       But in New England suspicions about the fruit's toxicity lingered.  It’s reported that in 1802 an Italian painter who tried to make extra spending cash by selling tomatoes failed to convince citizens of Salem, Mass. to even taste the fruit.   According to popular legend, in 1820, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, scion of a well-known Salem NJ family and reputed friend of George Washington, announced he intended to consume a full bushel of tomatoes on the front steps of the Courthouse. His own doctor predicted,
“The foolish colonel will foam and froth at the mouth and double over with appendicitis. All that oxalic acid, in one dose, and you're dead. If the Wolf Peach is too ripe and warmed by the sun, he'll be exposing himself to brain fever. Should he, by some unlikely chance, survive, I must warn him that the skin...will stick to his stomach and cause cancer.”  It's said a large crowd gathered to watch the Colonel enjoy what they were convinced would be his last meal. But seeing that he did not immediately keel over dead, they cheered vociferously while he finished the bushel, and the firemen’s band struck up a peppy song.   Most historians cast doubt on the veracity of  Colonel Gibbon's tomato eating anecdote, but fact or fiction, after 1820 publications in the region such as The Cook's Own Book (1832), and the  Shaker Gardener's Manual (1843) began including tomato recipes.   Tomato seeds now had commercial value and the Landreth Seed Company, established in 1784 and noted for George Washington once having had a past-due account there, began offering them for sell.

   During the Colonial Period and up until the Civil war, the most commonly grown tomato variety was Early Large Red . a.k.a. Large Red.    It was grown by the Shakers of Hancock, Mass. in the 1830's and is found listed in the 1843 Shaker seed catalog at New Lebanano, NY.  Large Red was included in Fearing Burr's 1865 book, Field and Garden Vegetables of America.   The sweet, richly flavored, tough-skinned tomatoes were mostly used for soups, ketchup, and sauces. 

      By 1835 tomatoes were in high demand in Boston’s Quincy Market. Thomas Bridgeman offered 4 varieties in his 1847 seed catalogue.  Seed merchant Robert Buist advertised 8 cultivars in his 1858 catalogue and commented, "
In taking retrospect of the last eighteen years, there is no vegetable in the catalogue that has obtained such popularity in so short a period.”  The tomato had gained such general acceptance that it began to be thought of by many as a symbol of good fortune. So began the tradition of placing a tomato on the mantle of a new home for luck. During the winter and spring months real tomatoes were unavailable so red cloth stuffed with sawdust had to do. These artificial tomato substitutes also worked well for storing pins and needles and became the prototype for many pincushions still used today.
    An enterprising Jonas Yerkes saw dollars to be made from the discarded tomato skins, cores, and rejected green tomatoes left over from the canning process.   To these he added lots of sugar and vinegar and launched a ketchup business that grew to be national by 1837.

Dr. William Smith, Professor at Willoughby University, believed the tomato had medicinal qualities and conducted experiments to prove it.  Dr. John Cook Bennett, president of the Willoughby medical department at the time, lectured on the subject, then publicized Smith’s claims in the Painesville Telegraph.  On August 1, 1835, the Ohio Farmer and Western Horticulturist reprinted the article and from there it went viral.  Publications throughout the country began touting the tomato as a cure-all.  What had by many been thought poisonous was now being touted a miracle.  Tomato pills were even advertised and sold.  Among the many medicinal virtues Bennett claimed for the tomato was a suggestion that it was an aphrodisiac.   While Bennett often boasted incorrectly that he  was the lone pioneer in discovering the tomato’s health benefits, he was irrefutably among the best in popularizing the idea. 
   Bennett was somewhat a charlatan and rogue in other matters other as well.  He was quite the womanizer, the creator of several college diploma mills, but probably best remembered as a scandalous, fallen from grace, leader of the Mormon Church at Nauvoo IL.  Still he ended his live honorably serving as a surgeon for the North in the Civil War  before dieing peacefully in 1867 as a respectable citizen of Polk City Iowa.

 Jamesburg NJ resident Harrison W. Crosby in 1847 became the first American to can tomatoes commercially.  He discovered the method of stewing tomatoes and soldering lids on tin cans while conducting experiments in Billy West Tavern.  Mr. Crosby was so proud of his success he sent samples of his canned tomatoes to the editor of The New York Times, President James Polk, and Queen Victoria.  John Dunn Buckelew was so impressed with Crosby's discovery that he established a cannery with Crosby as supervisor to mass produce Crosby's Celebrated Ketchup hereby launching NJ as the tomato canning capital of America.   NJ once had  as many as 59 tomato processors. 

Commercialization      By 1863 seeds of 23 cultivars were available for purchase including the first large, red, smooth-skinned variety, Trophy, developed by Dr. T.J. Hand by crossing a cherry tomato with a full sized one.  Advertised as having a sweet, mild flavor, 5-7 ounce, round tomatoes ideal for slicing, this 80 day indeterminate was offered by Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., of Newport, Rhode Island at the skyrocket price of  $.25 per seed or $5.00 per packet of 20.   A Union cavalry officer of some note during the Civil War, even more famous as New York City’s Commissioner of Street Cleaning afterwards, the Colonel also earned a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic as an expert in the field of scientific agriculture.


      After immigrating to America from Scotland in 1843,  Peter Henderson worked for New York horticulturalist  Grant Thorburn, then Robert Buist.   In 1865 Peter published the first book on market gardening in the US, Gardening for Profit.  It held high praise for Waring's tomato.

"... interest taken in this fruit and the confidence placed in Mr. Waring's statements, led to the sale of seeds to a large amount of growers in all parts of the country. I had seen the "Trophy" growing, the previous season, at "Ogden Farm," at Newport RI, and while I felt that Mr. Waring's description was by no means exaggerated, I declined to give him my opinion until it had been tested in other localities where soil and climate were different. In 1870 I planted out a couple of dozen plants which had been started in the usual way, and tied them to stakes. Under the same conditions I planted the "New York Market" and "Rising Sun" -  the varieties we considered the best and earliest of last year's experiment. In earliness, the "Trophy" had no perceptible advantage over the other two, but in size, smoothness, and beauty of coloring, as well as in solidity and flavor, it certainly exceeded them. So that taking it all and all, I believe it to be thus far unexcelled, whether grown for private use or, for market purposes. This opinion I find very generally concurred in all sections of the country wherever it has been submitted to a trial test with others."


      Although tomato horticulture was becoming a profitable business,  growers often complained that the tomatoes they actually grew were nothing like the ones advertised.  After paying top prices for what were supposed to be premium seeds, growers instead often got severely ribbed, hard cored, sour tasting, small tomatoes with hollow fruit. 
     It was a pioneering seedsman in Reynoldsburg OH, Alexander Livingston, who made the discovery that led to more reliable uniform crop production.  Having been raised on a frontier farm, Alexander had little exposure to formal education.  But he was a tenacious experimenter determined to produce a tomato with better flavor and more uniform characteristics.  After failing repeatedly in attempts at hybridization,  Alexander switched to seed selection and fortuitously found a superior plant among his trials.  He spent the next five years carefully choosing only seeds from the best plants from this original stock to propagate.  This resulted in the improved strain he wanted, and in 1870 Livingston  introduced his Paragon tomato.   Paragon consistently produced large, sweet tasting, perfectly smooth skinned, deep-red fruits - just like the ones advertised.   Livingston also introduced Acme, Golden Queen, and Perfection.

        In 1871 Peter Henderson established his own seed company that developed it own landmark tomato, Crimson Cushion, developed from a sport of Red Ponderosa.   Introduced in 1892, Crimson Cushion produced huge, earlier, and deeper red fruit than Ponderosa,  with deliciously rich, thick, meaty flesh. 



  In 1869, 25 year old German born, Henry John Heinz of Sharpsburg PA, began delivering horseradish, sauerkraut, vinegar and pickles to local grocers in Pittsburgh and surrounding villages.   In 1872 E.J. Noble became a joint owner and the company moved to nearby Pittsburgh changing its name from the Anchor Pickle and Vinegar Works to Heinz Noble & Company.   A banking panic in 1875 forced the company into bankruptcy.   Undaunted, Henry formed a new company, F. & J. Heinz,  with the help of his brother John and cousin Frederick.   The reformulated company added tomato ketchup to its offerings  advertising its new condiment as, "Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household."   Apple butter, mustard, tomato soup, olives, baked beans followed shortly thereafter. 

     Also in 1869 Abraham Anderson and Joseph Campbell formed the the Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company in Camden NJ.  Their canned Celebrated Beefsteak Tomato won an award for quality at Philadelphia's  1876 Centennial Exposition.
    Up until 1890 all tomato canning was hand labor intensive, but in that year mechanized peeling tables were employed greatly speeding up the process. In 1897 the new company really took off when $7.50 a week employee Dr. John T. Dorrance invented condensed soup reducing the cost of a can of soup from thirty cents to a dime.  The Campbell Kids were born in 1904 and posted in trolley cars in 378 cities.  
Cornell University's football team's  bright red and white colors were adopted by the company a year later,  and in 1922 "Soup" became the company's middle name.   In the 1930's, with the advent of commercial radio,  came the familiar "M’m! M’m! Good!" jingle featured on popular shows like Amos "N Andy.  

The tomato becomes a vegetable
     In 1883, in an effort to help the American farmer, the United State Congress imposed a 10% tariff on all imported vegetables. Under the Schedule G.-Provisions of this legislation tariffs were placed on tomatoes imported from the West Indies .   Edward L. Hedden, tax collector of the port of New York, was sued by the Nix Family for the taxes he had imposed on their tomato importing business. They based their lawsuit on the undisputable scientific fact that a tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable.   Therefore the tariff should not apply.   On April 24, 1893 the case reached the Supreme Court in Nix vs. Hedden.  In the court's decision on May 10, 1893, Justice Gray wrote,
"Botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas.  But in the common language of the people...all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert."

Quit straggling
     Fort Lauderdale was a small quiet Florida town back in 1914.   It was there that Bert Croft was surprised that one of his tomato plants formed a neat bush rather than the usual long straggly vine.   Also noticeable was the fact that the medium sized pink fruits all matured and ripened over a  short period of time.   Bert shared his discovery with with Dr. C. D. Cooper who farmed nearby.  CD and other farmers found the 'determinate' traits of this new discovery ideal for commercial harvesting.   The Cooper's Special, as the tomato became known, then was also used to parent other new determinate varieties. 

   With the increased monoculture of tomatoes came a corresponding increase in tomato disease.  In response, Maryland Agricultural College Professor J. B. Norton would select relatively healthy tomato plants from otherwise ‘sick’ fields and plant their seeds.  By repeating this through several generations J.B. developed disease resistant strains.  He passed along several of his successes to USDA plant pathologist Fred  J. Pritchard who continued the selection process and released a disease resistant tomato in 1917 he named Norton in honor of J.B.     In 1925 Pritchard released Marglobe which had a good resistance to Verticillium and Fusarium wilt; just in time, it turns out, to save the Florida tomato agribusiness from impending disaster. 
    Not only Florida, but everywhere across the nation, Marglobe caught on like wildfire.  And for good reason.   In addition to its disease resistance, the appetizing tomatoes are smooth and globe shaped, nearly coreless, scarlet red, crack resistant,  early and weighing in at six ounces.    Marglobe consequently became a commonly used  parent in breeding other new varieties.   In 1926 Scarlet Topper, a 90 day semi-determinate, was developed as a cross of Cooper Special with Marglobe.   In 1932 Scarlet Topper was renamed Pritchard Scarlet Topper to honor Fred J. who had just died in 1931.  In 1933 the Pritchard tomato was an AAS winner in the first year such awards were given.

    WWII food shortages and the government's victory-garden push motivated Burpee to focus on improving home garden vegetables.   In 1945 Burpee introduced the Fordhook Hybrid Tomato.   It was the best tomato developed to date but no match for what was to come next.  Oved Shifriss  was born in Israel and came to the United States in 1936 where he earned a doctorate in genetics at Cornell University.   He was employed as director of vegetable research for Burpee in Warminster PA where after experimenting with thousands of tomato hybrid crosses he revolutionize tomato gardening in 1949 by introducing  Burpee's "Big Boy" hybrid tomato.   Although Big Boy's genetic heritage is a well protected trade secret, it's suspected that its parentage may include some great flavored Russian cultivars well known to Dr. Shifriss' father who immigrated from Odessa to Israel.   Compared to other tomatoes grown at the time, Big Boys were less straggly, more resistant to disease, and reliably produced more fruit.   Its 78 day maturity out-paced most non-hybrids by a week or more.   Burpee's new tomato  became an instant success when introduced and its popularity lingers on even today.

    Early Girl was developed by a hybridizer in France.  The short-season tomato was flavorful, attractive, and tolerated temperatures as low as 40 degrees.  However, the French developer considered the new creation a grand failure because it bruised too easily to be trucked by commercial growers.  But Joe Howland,  chairman of Pan American Seed Company and member of the Board of Directors at PetoSeed Co.,  had been on the lookout for just such a hardy tomato; one that could be reliably grown under the variable climate conditions of his high desert home where he gardened in Reno NV.  Joe named the tomato Early Girl and Dr. Paul Thomas took charge of production for Peto.
     W. Atlee Burpee bargained with PetoSeed for exclusive rights to market the seed and featured the tomato on the cover of its 1975 spring catalog.  Ever since, Early Girl has been the standard by which all other early tomatoes are judged. 

Ketchup becomes a vegetable
      In 1981 Congress cut $1 billion from the United States Department of Agriculture's budget for the school lunch program.  For a meal to be subsidized by USDA it had to include two servings of fruit or vegetables.  A panel of government experts (I smell an oxymoron there) decided that since kids threw away the lima beans and broccoli anyway, to save money while serving meals that students would actually eat, why not allow more latitude in what state officials could define as a fruit or vegetable serving.   Not only ketchup, but pickle relish also met the new standards.   When the new rules became public,  criticism was harsh.  The media ridiculed the new Reagan administration while elected Democrats took every opportunity to accuse Republicans of starving poor children.    In all fairness to the 'Gipper', the decision-making never reached his level.  The proposal was quickly withdrawn and the USDA official in charge fired, but the ketchup stain on Reagan's presidency still remains. 


    For 6 decades hundreds of  thousands of boys and girls supplemented their allowances and earned prizes by selling seed packets door to door in their neighborhoods.  For many kids this was their first entrepreneurial  experience.   The young businessboy or businessgirl would respond to one of the ubiquitous  ads found on the backs of magazines and comic books,  then eagerly wait for the shipment of seeds to arrive.   It was the child's responsibility to pay for the seeds in a timely fashion.   The going rate in the 1960's was $6.60 for 44 seed packets.  Sales over $6.60 was profit.  The packets contained popular varieties of flowers and vegetables.   I remember Beefsteak, Rutgers, and Marglobe were among the tomato varieties included.  These were very reliable varieties acceptable to any knowledgeable gardener.
   Sadly, in 1981 the American Seed Company of Lancaster PA went out of business.  Closing their doors meant another passage of American childhood was gone.  Some media reported that the closing was due to too many kids  pocketing all the receipts and not sending America Seed Company its cut.   I would prefer to think that other adverse cultural or economic forces were to blame.  


Tomatoes from Space 
    In 1984 millions of Park Seed Company tomato seeds were launched into space aboard the Challenger shuttle.  More than 12.5 million Rutgers California Supreme seeds spent 5 years in orbit aboard  NASA's Long Duration Exposure Facility.  The Columbia shuttle retrieved the tomato seeds in 1989 and experiment kits containing 50 space seeds and 50 control seeds were distributed to 40,000  K-12 and colleges across the U.S.A. and 34 foreign countries.  Three million participating students designed their own research projects and sent their observations back to NASA.  The results published in 1991 found no mutants, but the space seeds germinated and grew slightly faster. They also produced more chlorophyll and carotenes than the control group seeds.  But the effects were found to be only temporary, and in flavor and every other way the space tomatoes were significantly identical to the control plants.


Genetic Engineering is the latest advance in horticulture technology.  Calgene Fresh Inc. discovered the gene that caused tomatoes to soften when they ripen.  By turning this gene off a tomato would turn red while remaining firm.  Calgene's 'Flavr Savr' tomato could ripen on the vine before harvest and still have a longer than natural  life in the produce section of your local supermarket.    The FDA declared Flavr Savr safe to eat and it went on store shelves in 1994.   Nevertheless consumers were skeptical of what many in the media were calling 'Franken Food'.   Green Peace and other activists groups led protests against the new bio-tech tomato.  Hollywood and politicians demagogued as well.  When Monsanto bought out Calgene in 1997 Flavr Savr was taken off the market. 
       Even though devoted to organic techniques and biased towards heirloom varieties as a backyard gardener, I do not see the efforts to prevent the latest discoveries in bio-tech being  any more successful than were the Luddites in halting the industrial revolution or the Grange's revolt against the railroads.  I do think the protests serve the useful purpose of encouraging government oversight and scientist self-imposing safeguards.   I also want to see preserved for future generations the heirloom cultivars and best horticultural practices of the past.  Actually I remember eating Flavr Savr tomatoes and thinking they were OK but not worth the premium cost.
     The demise of Flavr Savr was only a minor setback in the world of bio-technology.  The revolution goes on.  Still, some scientist question the efficacy of bio-tech food. 

Back to the Future - Heirlooms
      As agri-business replaced the family farm, fewer and fewer farmers planted more and more of the same kind of seed.   With cultivars like  Rutgers, VF-145, and Big Boy in such universal demand, seed, companies had little reason to continue offering varieties that only a few traditionalists sought.   Backyard gardening seemed to be disappearing too as small farming communities lost population to suburbia.   Seed companies were caught up in merger-mania, consolidating to the point only a few mega-conglomerates monopolized the market.
       Kent and Diane Whealy were the recipients of heirlooms passed down through great-grandparents who left Bavaria in the 1870's.  One of these was German Pink Tomato [picture right].   They became concerned that heirlooms were being lost.  This is not only a sentimental and esthetic lose, it is a looming genetic disaster.  As the potato famine in Ireland taught, relying on only a few strains of any given type of plant is dangerous.  Genetic diversity is necessary for our survival.    In 1975 Diane and Kent began the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.   The idea of saving heirlooms received rapid acceptance.  Membership has quickly grown and now more than 21,000 rare fruits and vegetable are listed with the exchange.   
     Besides Kent and Diane, two other individuals who deserve recognition for their advocacy and efforts in preserving heirlooms are Carolyn Male and Craig LeHoullier.   Dr. Male is a lifetime Member of SSE and has contributed hundreds of heirlooms for preservation.  She has grown and evaluated more than 1,000 heirloom varieties herself.   Dr. LeHoullier joined SSE in 1986.  His personal heirloom collection also exceeds 1000.  Craig also collects antique seed catalogs to glean their historical data.    I'm sure there are many others deserving acclaim, but really, in the data-base of heirloom tomatoes I've searched, the names Whealy, Male and LeHoullier are ubiquitous.  Thanks to them the public interest in heirloom varieties has exploded, and I think bio-diversity in the gene-pool of tomatoes, for now at least, is safe.

     Seminis was created in 1994 by billionaire Alfonso Romo, owner of Mexico’s largest cigarette company, when he bought out seed giants Asgrow, Petoseed, and multiple smaller Asian seed companies.  Alfonso succeeded in cornering 40% of the U.S. and 20% of the world seed market.  At its peak, shares of Seminis stock reached more than $7,  but due to excessive inventory and other factors, by 2003 Seminis shares dropped to around 50 cents.  In 2005 Seminis was bought out by chemical and agriculture giant Monsanto.
     Monsanto is the poster child for new fangled genetic tampering,  creating multiple 'Franken-veggies',  and so gets boycotted  by many organic food purists.  Environmentalist protest its massive production of insecticides and herbicides like Round-Up.  Monsanto also has created concern over it's multinational mega-corporation monopolistic status.  It added fuel to that fire in 2008 by buying out the huge Dutch seed company, De Ruiter Seeds.
    As of Jan. 2017 Monsanto is under the largest all-cash buyout offer in history by 117,000 employee Germany Corp., Bayer.  Bayer's sales last year came to $51 billion; 30% related to agriculture.  Monsanto sales totaled $15 billion.  Nearly $60 billion in financing for the deal is being put up by Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan.
    The possible Monsanto buyout has triggered rival Ag. giants Dow Chemical and DuPont to seek mega-deals of their own, While a Chinese company has bid $43 billion for Syngenta. 
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