The Radical Idea of Public Fruit


tree quakerRichard Townsend arrived in North America with the first group of Quaker colonizers to Pennsylvania.  According to one Bucks County legend, when the local Lenni Lenape Indians found him setting out fruit trees in his private orchard, they told him about a giant apple tree that grew not far from his new homestead. Curious, Townsend asked his Indian neighbors to lead him to the site, and was surprised to find ““an apple tree in an Indian clearing, vastly larger than any seen in England, heavily loaded with larger and better apples than he had ever seen before.” Perhaps the tree, which appeared to be an Old World variety, had been planted intentionally or otherwise by Native Americans who had acquired apples from Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam. Townsend asked the Indians to sell him the land on which the mysterious tree stood. The Indians agreed to sell him the land on the condition that the tree remain available “for the free use of all who wanted apples,” a condition Townsend accepted. According to this legend, the tree survived until 1792, 107 years after Townshend first encountered it.

The story highlights a fundamental difference in the way Native Americans and Europeans viewed perennial fruit trees.  For the Lenni Lenape, fruit hanging from a branch could not be “owned” by an individual, nor could an individual claim private ownership of the tree from which it grew.  Ownership came with the act of harvesting.  As Europeans remade the North American landscape, they also rewrote the rules of property which applied to that landscape, and the radical idea of “public fruit” essentially disappeared.

In recent years, the radical idea of public fruit has gained new currency, and in cities

Losa Angeles-based fruit and art collective Fallen Fruit

Losa Angeles-based fruit and art collective Fallen Fruit

across America, volunteer organizations like The Philadelphia Orchard Project, the Boston Tree Party, the Portland Fruit Tree Project and Seattle’s City Fruit have been planting urban orchards or taking on the responsibility of caring for and harvesting fruit from already existing urban trees.  The public fruit movement achieved another milestone recently when the Los Angeles based collective, Fallen Fruit, which has been producing maps of publicly accessible fruit for years, opened the city’s first public fruit garden.

Janet Owen Driggs makes the case that Los Angeles’ new public fruit park is radical, in part because it reverses laws in place in cities across the nation through much of 20th century which actively banned fruit-bearing trees on pubic land.  Driggs explains that “the legal basis for the prohibition lies instead with the doctrine of attractive nuisance: a tort in common law by which a landowner may be liable for injuries inflicted on an ‘infant trespasser’ by an object or condition appealing to a child, when the landowner could reasonably foresee the potential danger. Examples include: an unfenced swimming pool, a cute-looking dog with a propensity to bite, and, apparently, a fruit-laden tree.”

The fruit tree prohibition that descended upon American cities in the 20th century may have found justification in the legal idea of “attractive nuisance,” but it also reflected other concerns.  Many urban planners privileged sterile or male trees for urban spaces because they did not produce “fruit litter,” and public fruit trees also sparked the general American anxiety about shared resources. Who would care for the trees? Who had “rights” to harvest them? How much fruit could one harvester legitimately take?  Fallen Fruit’s new Del Aire Fruit Park may be a sign that things re changing. After a century in which Americans became more divorced from the production of food they consumed, the desire to bring food production back into the spaces where people live work and play is growing.  The Drigg’s essay is worth reading in full:  Fallen Fruit and the ‘Thin Edge of the Wedge.’

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A Brief Illustrated History of the Fruit Crate Label


The History of the Fruit Crate Label

California fruit growers appealed to eastern consumer's ideas about the west coast as a paradise, and often featured pictures of attractive women enjoying the outdoors, or beautiful landscapes of fertile valleys bounded by mountains and sea.

California fruit growers appealed to eastern consumer’s ideas about the west coast as a paradise, and often featured pictures of attractive women enjoying the outdoors, or beautiful landscapes of fertile valleys bounded by mountains and sea.

For much of the 19th century, the American apple industry was concentrated in the eastern part of the country, and markets for apples were primarily local or regional, and much of the nation’s apple production occurred on farms where fruit growing was but one of many agricultural activities. In the late 19th century, with the development of a national railroad network and refrigerated rail cars, and the introduction of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, a new, more specialized fruit growing industry emerged along the Pacific Coast.  Apples produced in the fertile valleys of California, Washington and Oregon could now be shipped to consumers across the nation, and arrive in pristine condition.

apple_barrel1But as western fruit growers developed their industry, they had to develop distinctive methods for packing their apples.  In the east, apple growers typically rolled oak barrels out into the orchards and quickly packed the apples direct from tree to barrel.  Once a barrel was filled and the lid secured, the farmer could roll the barrel out of the orchard before loading on a wagon. The fruit inside made its full journey from orchard to store in the barrel, and the merchant typically sold the fruit straight from the barrel.

The softwood fruit crate was a necessary innovation from the west coast fruit industry.  But it also had the advantage of reducing shipping costs with its greater packing efficiency.

The softwood fruit crate was a necessary innovation from the west coast fruit industry. But it also had the advantage of reducing shipping costs with its greater packing efficiency.

On the west coast, a shortage of hardwoods made the barrel an impractical container for getting fruit from orchard to store.  Instead, west coast growers built small softwood crates, and carefully packed fruit in these smaller containers.  The rectangular shape of the crate also increased packing efficiency as fruit traveled across the nation by railcar.

Apples from the Pacific Northwest (and apples and citrus fruit from California) proved to have great appeal to eastern consumers.  Every specimen arrived at the grocer’s in good shape, whereas apples at the bottom of large oak barrels were often bruised and unappetizing.  Finally, by decorating the crate with colorful brand labels, western fruit growers appealed to consumer’s aesthetic sensibilities, and sometimes cultivated brand loyalty.

Chief seattle apples

Eastern consumers often associated the west with Indians, so many fruit crate labels used images of Native Americans in their branding.

This unusual label reveals the twentieth century American consumers' interest in food products that were consistent and predictable in flavor and appearance.

This unusual label reveals the twentieth century American consumers’ interest in food products that were consistent and predictable in flavor and appearance.

By the 1940s, American apple consumers were increasingly obsessed with the physical appearance of the food they consumed.

By the 1940s, American apple consumers were increasingly obsessed with the physical appearance of the food they consumed.

Fruit Growers responded to a perceived consumer preference for “good looking” fruit by cultivating “sports” which were striking in their color and appearance.  A “sport” is a naturally occurring genetic mutation in a grafted tree, which can than be propagated by grafting.  “Red Sports” were all the rage, and growers became more and more concerned with production of apples with the best color.  Many argue that they did this at the expense of flavor. By the 1950s, red sport varieties of the Delicious and the McIntosh were dominating an apple market which increasingly lacked choice and diversity.

This "Oregon Girl" label anticipates the transition to a global apple market.

This “Oregon Girl” label anticipates the transition to a global apple market.

 Today fruit crate labels are highly collectable, and most of those which survive come from west coast orchards.  Eventually, east coast growers began to recognize the effectiveness of the fruit crate label as a marketing device, and they began to emulate buckeye apples 2their western competition. so labels from eastern producers can be found, but are less plentiful.   The golden age of the fruit crate label were between the 1890s and the 1940s. By the 1950s, corrugated cardboard boxes began to replace the fruit crate, and while commonly stamped with colorful brand images, they lacked the vivid color and appeal of the softwood fruit crate label.

John Chapman: St. Francis . . . or Steve Jobs?


John “Appleseed” Chapman:

steve_jobs.w.applesaint_francis_of_assisi.bird.cross

Saint Francis . . . . . . . or Steve Jobs?

The legend of Johnny Appleseed has been retold to generations of children.  The wandering apple tree planter is held up to young people as a force for good in the world.  In most of the children’s literature John Chapman most resembles St. Francis of Assisi—a generous soul who committed himself to a life of poverty in order that he could do good for others.  In the story of Johnny Appleseed, bringing the gift of the apple tree to poor frontier families is the focus of his benevolence.  When I give talks at local historical societies and libraries, many in the audience are often unsettled when I mention that he sold his seedling apple trees.  That John Chapman may have earned cash from his activities upsets their image of him as a man whose mission was one of pure benevolence.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, as local historians began a serious effort to find evidence that John Chapman had spent time in their communities they began unearthing evidence in an unexpected place: land records offices.  John Chapman, it appears not only sold his trees for money, but he bought and sold land, amassing, at times, as many as 800 acres or more.  For some champions of the Johnny Appleseed legend, evidence that their hero sold apple trees and speculated in land was quite troubling, as it appeared to undermine their view that he was a man absent of personal material desire.  But other Johnny Appleseed aficionados embraced this new information, and in a post-WWII era when the reputation of the American businessman was ascendant, they began to promote a

Was John Chapman kinda like this man . . .

Was John Chapman kinda like this man . . .

vision of John Chapman as a successful businessman.  One writer during the Reagan era even declared that “Johnny Appleseed was an entrepreneur—the kind of small businessman so much a part of the building of America—who conceived and executed a unique and daring enterprise of growing and selling apple tree seedlings . . . One of the key ingredients of business success is a sound understanding of the nature of the market served. Johnny Appleseed seemed to have comprehended his market exactly.” In his efforts to portray John Chapman as a true capitalist, the writer denied  that Chapman ever gave away his products for free, despite much evidence to the contrary. “He deliberately, and in a business-like way sold the seedlings to pioneer farmers,” this champion of the Johnny Appleseed-as-businessman idea insisted.  Others who have subscribed to the Johnny Appleseed-as-businessman idea have exaggerated the extent of his accumulated wealth at the end of his life.

There are many problems with the Johnny Appleseed-as-successful-businessman

 . . . or more like this woman?

. . . or more like this woman?

idea, and the first of these is that a close look at his economic transactions suggests that he was a poor land speculator.  He often bought high and sold low, or defaulted on land entirely when he could not make payments.  When his estate was finally settled after his death, it appeared that he was neither rich nor poor, but someone who simply “got by.” His credits and debits pretty much cancelled each other out in the final reckoning.  But the larger problem is that it is clear that for at least the last two decades of his life amassing wealth was not John Chapman’s objective.  He continued to live the life of a pauper, despite the demand for his trees, and spent nearly all of the money he earned helping others.  While it is true that he put a price on his trees, he commonly followed a “pay what you can” model, charging full price to those who could afford it, and discounting or even giving away trees to those in tighter financial straits.

Perhaps a better label to apply to John Chapman is that of “social entrepreneur.”  The idea of the social entrepreneur has gained recognition in recent decades, yet still remains imperfectly defined.  Most commonly it is used to describe persons or

Rocker Jon Bon Jovi opened Soul Kitchen, a "Pay What You Can" restaurant.

Rocker Jon Bon Jovi opened Soul Kitchen, a “Pay What You Can” restaurant.

organizations that employ their entrepreneurial skills to affect positive social change rather than to maximize profits.  Company’s like Newman’s Own, founded by the late actor Paul Newman, that devote 100% of their profits to charitable causes is one example; the website Kiva.org, which allows individuals to extend no-interest loans to entrepreneurs in impoverished regions is another. Chapman fits this broad definition of social entrepreneur pretty well.  He recognized the demand for seedling apple trees on the expanding frontier, and found a way to fill it.  By making them available to settlers using a pay-what-you-can model, he improved the lives of frontier families.  And most of the money he made off this venture he re-invested in people, purchasing religious tracts which he distributed freely on the frontier, and giving money and goods to those he encountered who had pressing needs.

To learn more, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchardnow available at finer bookstores, from the History Book Club, and in Kindle, Nook, and Sony Reader editions.

Was Johnny Appleseed a Barefoot Vegetarian?


Was Johnny Appleseed a Barefoot Vegetarian?

While researching my book, Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, I sifted through mountains of oral traditions and tall tales about the legendary apple tree planter.  What proved to be more difficult to find were concrete traces of the real John Chapman preserved in the historical record.  Some of the more useful sources of information about Chapman were Dry Goods Store ledgers in some of the communities where he resided.  But I was certainly caught by surprise with a discovery I made at the Crawford County Historical Society in Meadville, Pennsylvania.  There, in a Holland Land Company store ledger from the 1790s, I found this list of items purchased by John Chapman: brandy, whiskey, sugar, chocolate, tobacco, three pairs of “mockasins,” gunpowder, and pork.

In the popular legend Johnny Appleseed carried no gun, went barefoot everywhere, was loathe to harm any living creature, was a vegetarian, and is sometimes described as a teetotaler.  These brief entries in the Holland Land Company records appeared to upend those legends.  In fact the Holland Land company store ledger isn’t the only story that suggests John sometimes carried a gun. A story from Warren, Pennsylvania describing his first crossing of the Alleghenies also has him fitted out with a rifle.  And one of the central Ohio stories recounting Chapman’s time there during the War of 1812 has John responding to suspicious gunfire by grabbing his own rifle to investigate, and returning later with a venison ham given to him by the deer-hunting neighbor responsible for the first shot.

Nevertheless, many people who knew John Chapman in his later years recounted his extreme aversion to harming any living creature, and asserted that his diet was vegetarian.  In all likelihood, Chapman adopted a vegetarian diet later in life.  If he did, he may have been among the nation’s first advocates of the vegetarian diet.  In the early 1820s, when John Chapman was in his

The Reverend William Metcalfe, leader of the Philadelphia Bible Christians, one of the earliest advocates of vegetarianism in the new nation.

mid forties, what was perhaps the first vegetarian community was established in Philadelphia.  The Reverend William Metcalfe and his followers, calling themselves the Bible Christians, shared with John Chapman an interest in the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. .  Metcalfe’s conversion to vegetarianism was at least in part a response to Swedenborg’s description of meat-eating as a dramatic sign of man’s fall. By the end of the 1820s, vegetarianism had found other American advocates as well, including Sylvester W. Graham, promoter of the Graham diet, and Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott.  All three of these early American advocates of vegetarianism argued for it on both spiritual and scientific grounds.

As for those moccasins, Chapman’s aversion to footwear is recounted in many sources that span his adult life.  But there are also surviving stories which recount that in times of very severe weather, he might be seen wearing the ragged, discarded boots of others. But even these he would give to others who in his mind needed them more than he did.  The three pairs of moccasins he acquired at the Holland Land Company Store in 1797, he may have purchased because they would be easy to carry, and might be traded for other things he needed, or be given to others in need.  And what should we make of the brandy and whiskey John Chapman purchased?  John Dawson, who knew Chapman in his later years recalled that he “was generally regarded as a temperate man . . . but occasionally he would take a dram of spirits to keep himself a little warm, as he said.”   That John Chapman was not a fiery prohibitionist should come as no surprise.  Many of the apples from the seedling trees John Chapman planted found their way to the cider mill, where they were converted to cider, both hard and sweet, and some then into cider brandy.  But that is a subject worthy of a future post.

Johnny Appleseed and our National Origin Story


Like most Americans of a certain age, I first encountered Johnny “Appleseed”  Chapman in elementary school.  In the story as I remember it, Chapman was a pious Yankee committed to a life of simplicity and benevolence. He determined at an early age to devote his life to one purpose–bringing the blessings of apple trees to the new lands in the developing West. His trees brought sweetness to the hard lives of pioneer families and helped sustain them in their labors. Wandering across the West in bare feet and ragged cast-off clothing, sleeping outdoors, and planting apple seeds wherever he went, Johnny Appleseed took pleasure in denying himself the most basic human comforts in order to carry out his mission. He asked for little in exchange for his trees—some old clothing, a simple meal, or from the truly destitute, nothing at all.  He radiated a spirit of peacefulness and both Indian and white man trusted him completely. He loved all of God’s creatures and was loath to harm any of them. One story recounts that he doused a fire and slept in the cold when he discovered that mosquitoes were flying into the flames to their destruction.  In the elementary school myth, Johnny Appleseed’s energy for planting trees was super-human. Nearly all of the orchards in the new west were the result of his labors.  He was St. Frances of Assisi and Santa Claus wrapped into one bundle.

Mansfield, Ohio boys wear tin pots on their head to honor Johnny Appleseed in 1953.


The myth of Johnny Appleseed is a part of our national origin story, in which the United States expands into the trans-Appalachian West in the years after the American Revolution. Johnny Appleseed isn’t the only hero in this drama, and in fact he is a curious outlier.  Men like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Mike Fink present a jarring contrast to the gentle tree-planter. Violence–directed at Native Americans and nature–lay at the heart of their stories, while Appleseed is remembered for sowing, not destroying. The short explanation for this difference is that the Boone, Crockett and Fink myths first flourished in the age of Andrew Jackson, and reflect that era’s obsessions with masculine aggression. The myth of Johnny Appleseed, in contrast, was a product of the Victorian era, when sentimental feeling and feminine traits were more commonly celebrated.

Mansfield, Ohio boys dressed as Indians in front of the local Johnny Appleseed monument in 1953.

Appleseed, along with Boone, Crockett, and Fink, received updates during the Cold War as each was deployed to serve new concerns. Among the most powerful disseminators of these legends was the Walt Disney Company, which seized on the westward expansion story to target a new audience of baby boomer children. Disney sanitized the most gruesome aspects of the Crockett and Fink traditions, yet even after this cleansing, the contrast with Johnny Appleseed remained startling. Mike Fink, Davy Crockett, and Daniel Boone were archetypes of American manhood, and even in the Disney versions, violence was nearly always central to their stories. Disney also added the thoroughly mythical Paul Bunyan to this cast, and celebrated him for his prowess felling whole forests of trees. Johnny Appleseed, in sharp contrast, devoted his life to planting them.

Johnny sowing appleseeds in Disney’s 1948 film Melody Time.

Nevertheless, most American children of the Cold War era understood Johnny Appleseed to be a member of the same team of frontier superheroes.  Boone, Crockett, Fink, Bunyan, and Chapman were all actors in a drama about transforming a continent. Crockett and Boone cleared the land of menacing Indians and wildlife; Fink helped make the interior rivers safe for commerce; Bunyan cleared the forest; and Appleseed planted fruit trees to prepare the land for white American farm families. In Cold War versions of these stories, Boone and Crockett reluctantly used violence as a last resort. These heroes protected American families from a red menace on television shows like Walt Disney Presents and Daniel Boone at a time when American soldiers were doing the same in other parts of the world. In that context, Johnny Appleseed symbolized the other American response to the threat, winning hearts and minds with charity and benevolence. If Crockett’s war against the Red Stick Creeks explained American military involvement in Korea, Appleseed’s unbounded benevolence was a metaphor for another approach to the same danger, manifested in American aid programs and organizations like the Peace Corps.

The Urban Orchard Movement


Over the last decade, an urban orchard movement has emerged in cities all across America.  In Los Angeles an organization called Fallen Fruit, taking advantage of an old law that declares fruit hanging from branches that overhang public sidewalks and roadways is free to the passerby, publishes maps of the greater Los Angeles area, directing gleaners to such fruit.  The Philadelphia Orchard Project has been planting fruit trees across the city since 2007, enhancing green spaces and food security for the city’s residents.  Similar organizations have emerged in other cities, including The Portland Fruit Tree Project, Seattle’s City Fruit, and The Boston Tree Party.  All of these organizations share an “apple idealism” which links them to the tradition of the nation’s moat legendary tree planter, John “Appleseed” Chapman.  Lisa Gross, the founder of the Boston Tree Party, is evangelical in her belief that apple trees can improve the experience of urban living.  “Imagine our cities filled with fruit trees,” Gross exclaims, “planted in civic spaces, at schools and hospitals, parks and businesses, houses of worship and more.  Imagine these communities coming together to care for these trees, to harvest and share their fruit.  Imagine these trees as tools of environmental restoration, helping to restore the health of our soil, to improve air quality and to absorb rainwater runoff. Imagine these trees as community focal points, opportunities for participation, learning and connection.  This is the vision of the Boston Tree Party.”   For a longer discussion of the place the urban orchard movement has in the larger history of the American orchard, pick up a copy of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) from your local bookstore or favorite internet retailer.

Polynesian crossings and the sweet potato


Historians often refer to the transfers of plants, animals, and diseases between “the Old

World” (Eurasia-Africa) and “the New World” (the Americas) after 1492 as “the Columbian Exchange.”  These exchanges, which included food plants like maize (from the Americas) and cultivated apples (from Eurasia-Africa) had far-reaching consequences for people all over the globe, and Columbus gets credit (or blame) for this not because he was known to be the first to bridge these two isolated landmasses for thousands of years, but because his 1492 expedition was the beginning of regular and sustained contacts between these worlds.  We have conclusive evidence of a Viking crossing and short-lived colony in the 11th century at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and there are many other claims of earlier maritime crossings, each supported with different degrees of evidence.  Now studies of plant genetics on sweet potatoes gathered from Pacific islands by Captain Cook back in 1769 are providing more evidence that Polynesian peoples may have made sea crossings to the Americas thousands of years before Columbus.  Check out this story from NPR’s the Salt for more details on this fascinating new development.  (And thanks to my friend Bernice Melvin for tipping me off to this story.)

Brief Review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in Publisher’s Weekly


A brief review of Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard in Publisher’s Weekly last week.  Here is the full text:

johnny appleseed coverThe myth of Johnny Appleseed comprises some of the odder elements of the American origin story, but as Kerrigan, Professor of American History at Muskingum University, shows, the real John Chapman was a complicated figure whose journeys highlighted major trends in the spread westward. Acknowledging that “most details of Chapman’s life escape us,” Kerrigan analyzes various oral traditions of Chapman’s life and actual evidence of his presence through shopkeepers’ ledgers and county land records. He charts Chapman’s course from childhood in Puritan Yankee Massachusetts, through his youthful wanderings in western Pennsylvania, to the semi-nomadic existence of his Ohio adulthood. Though the exact reasons Chapman headed west remain unclear, Kerrigan asserts that the Old World apple tree “plant[ed] European ideas of property on the landscape,” and it’s likely Chapman was replicating his forefathers’ pattern of settlement in an attempt to achieve Puritan social standing. Well-versed in theology, Chapman also possessed many quirky personal habits, yet contrary to myth, he wasn’t the “clean-living vegetarian who never carried a gun.” By following Chapman across the frontier, Kerrigan demonstrates the harsh realities of frontier life and the rapid pace of change in the new lands; a welcome perspective that illuminates a crucial, but oft-overlooked period of American history. (Dec)