Golden Health Globes

The name itself says that we cannot exist without it. Food - excess or lack of it were the causes of wars and destruction or prosperity and joy in life. Even so, sometimes we get the impression that the hype around food and drink is unique in our time. Instead of a culinary corner in the newspapers or a guide on morning TV, we have colour magazines and TV channels advising what to eat and drink. Not to mention the hype on the Internet and social media. The hysteria around apple cider vinegar, avocado, kefir - basically ordinary foods designed to make you forever healthy (and most importantly lean) - knows no bounds. But this hype is not our invention. It happened before, and the main character of the madness of that time was an ordinary orange.

Mexican soil and American head

What put William Wolfskill on the pages of history was a magical fruit that in the past few people had a chance to taste – oranges. They were brought to California by missionaries during the Spanish colonial era. Cultivated by both the Franciscans and the Indians, they did not find much recognition for one, but very important reason: they were unpalatable, or more precisely: sour and dry, with large seeds and a thick crust. To sell oranges, they had to do something to get people to like them. The easiest way was to change their taste. Only a talented agronomist could do that, and that was William Wolfskill, who concentrated on breeding hybrids, i.e. crossing local species with oranges of more noble origin and better taste. His interest in oranges was not accidental. Oranges were less sensitive to weather conditions, soil type, and precipitation than grapes. Most importantly, they could be transported over longer distances, which was important in the era when the transport of goods from west to east took months. In his orchards in the Santa Ana River valley, Wolfskill grew a sweet and tasty species, which he called Valencia for purely marketing purposes, so that people would associate its fruit with the highest quality fruit from this Spanish province. Not to mention , they were not brought from Spain, but from India.

William Wolfskill was successful, but did not live to see his greatest triumph as an agronomist and grower. Shortly before his death, however, he made a deal that gave him a place in history. Wolfskill sold a patent for his orange’s hybrid to the owners of Irvine Ranch, who quickly expanded its cultivation on a large scale. The yield of the new strain was so good that the new owners decided to change its name to Valencia California to emphasize the uniqueness of the fruit and the place where it was grown. Oranges quickly became a desirable commodity and big business.

From the Wild West to the Civilized East

In 1877, 11 years after Wolfskill’s death and a whole month after leaving Los Angeles, a special train entered  St. Louis, the place where traditionally the Wild West ended and the civilized East began. It was the first shipment of oranges to be shipped by rail to consumers far away from California. Earlier the fruit was delivered to silver miners in Nevada for $ 1 apiece (!), But sending the whole train so far was an innovative move. Transport to St. Louis started the mass sale of oranges. Five years later, 500 wagons were sent from California to the East, and 50,000 a year in the 1920s.

Oranges advertising poster from the end of the 19th century.
Advertising poster from the end of the 19th century. ©Library of Congress

Revolutionary Eliza

Another pioneer of gardening was an enterprising lady named Tibbets. Eliza Tibbets is famous for growing fruit from two trees, which also revolutionized citrus growing in California. The trees of the previously unknown species of “Selecta” also came from India. They were transported to Portugal, and then to colonial Brazil. Brazil was close to the US. The trees were donated to the US Department of Agriculture, which later handed them over to Eliza Tibbets. This eccentric, for her time, woman (a great supporter abolitionist, feminist, collectivist, three times married, twice divorced, mother of an adopted black boy) previously flooded the ministry with letters asking what species of oranges are best for breeding in California. The ministry’s response came in the form of two small Selecta trees.

By caring for these two rotten trees as if they were her own children, regularly watering them with precious water that she had obtained from modest rations for kitchen needs, Eliza kept them alive. In the period of 1875-1876, the trees bore fruit for the first time. The systematically strengthening plants became a source of cuttings that were used to improve less valuable trees. Over time, Eliza began selling tree cuttings for one dollar each. In some years she managed to sell grafts for a total of $ 20,000. It was a fantastic idea that resulted in great commercial success. Within a few years, this hardworking woman had become a rich person. Eliza’s success and the speed at which the new species spread was phenomenal. The fruit was sweet, tasty and beautiful. Within a few years they took over California and other subtropical regions of the US.

Orange tree
Difficult beginnings, but the success of the oranges was phenomenal. The fruit was sweet, tasty and beautiful. Within a few years they took over California and other subtropical regions of the US. © Detroit Photographic Co., Library of Congress

Political agronomy: the operation was successful, the patient died

Americans loved oranges so much that no one was surprised when, in 1930, US President Theodore Roosevelt himself helped move one of Eliza’s two original trees to a more worthy location – in front of the main entrance of the Mission Inn Hotel in Riverside. It was an incredible advertisement for an orange performed by America’s greatest idol of the time. Less impressive was the fact that this – already historic – tree did not survive the move and soon withered away. The unsuccessful replanting of the tree was a bad advertisement for the agronomicists of the local political elite. To cover up this little catastrophe and add to the seriousness of the state’s rapidly expanding horticulture industry, this orange species has been given the proud new name “Washington Navel.” In this way, no one could escape the fact that the fruit was “grown” on American soil. The care for the second tree was better, and it grew stronger without being exposed to contacts with politicians. To this day, it grows peacefully, carefully protected from politicians and vandals, at the intersection of Magnolia i Arlington  streets in Riverside.

President Theodore Roosevelt trying to replant the first Navel Orange tree.
President Theodore Roosevelt and a group of politicians / amateurs - agronomists are trying to replant the first Navel Orange tree. Riverside. California May 1903. © SMU Central University Libraries

The propaganda success of the Washington Navel was followed by commercial success. In the 1904-1905, 31,422 wagons filled with the new Californian gold – oranges left California. The improved “Washington Navel” has also made a great international career with time. The species has spread to Japan, Australia and South Africa. California also repaid Brazil for donating the first trees in the second half of the 19th century. When a catastrophic epidemic struck Brazil in the 1930s that wiped out most of the orchards, the US government repaid the favour by sending cuttings from the original “Selecta” aka “Washington Navel” tree. In this way, this valuable species was saved in Brazil, the largest orange producer in the world today.

Hype on a grand scale

The great popularity of the orange would only be a fascinating story were it not for the fact that it played a historic role in the economic history of Southern California. Thanks to sensational medical reports pointing to oranges as a source of valuable vitamin C, the popularity of the new fruit continued to grow. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the California Fruit Growers Exchange (later the famous Sunkist) and of course the Southern Pacific Railroad launched the first well-thought-out campaign to popularize this fruit in 1907. Their taste and great value for health were pointed out. The first such action was carried out in Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, which was traditionally considered the heart of the industrial Midwest and proudly referred to as the “American Heartland.” The idea of the first advertising campaign looked a bit strange at first and was rather exaggerated. Orange growers were very sceptical whether it would actually increase their turnover and profits. Their hard-earned money was to go to poetry contests in schools, the production of countless colourful advertising banners, wrapping individual oranges in thin tissue paper with colourful illustrations showing romantic life on “Spanish plantations” and other advertising extravagances. The goal was ambitious and measured high. Everyone in Des Moines was wanted to know about the campaign and to eat at least one whole orange.

Tesoro Rancho Sunkist Advertising poster from the end of the 20th century
Advertising poster from the end of the 20th century. © Library of Congress

Southern Pacific-operated trains loaded with crates full of oranges and adorned with advertising banners were shipped to the industrial Midwest. From time to time, telegraph messages were sent as to where the train sent from Los Angeles was on its route and when it could be expected in the next city. This sensational way of advertising was very much appreciated by local newspapers, which reported vividly the journey of “golden health globes from dazzling California”. Large colourful advertisements were posted along the roads and railroads, and local newspapers were filled with advertisements. Something that was quite rare at the time was created for the campaign. Two fictional characters were created: a girl – Miss California and a boy – Iowa Boy. Countless reproductions have depicted Miss California offering her friend golden oranges. She was supposed to symbolize sunny California, and he was to symbolize snow Iowa. Lest there be any doubts, this sentimental picture was supplemented with the slogan: “You throw snowballs for me and I will throw oranges for you.” Over time, great cities and secluded villages were flooded with brochures, books, illustrated magazines, newspaper advertisements, and large-format advertisements. California was presented as an American paradise, where a miraculous elixir that gives health and happiness grows.

To the West, to paradise

Of course, California oranges should not be confused with the – supposedly inferior – variety of oranges from Florida! A couple of spoons or a glass of orange juice were supposed to work miracles. Especially popular were the special, elegant spoons, snapped up at every occasion, which guaranteed that not a single drop of this fruit drink, valuable for health, would be wasted. The Iowa campaign was successful. While in the United States consumption increased by 17.7%, in Iowa by as much as 50%. This successful action was repeated in other regions of the country, and even in imperial London itself. Oranges ceased to be an oriental “Spanish” fruit and became a true big American business.

Citrus groves US
At the beginning of the 20th century, citrus groves transformed from a paradise to a place of hard, almost industrial work, giving the city's poorer inhabitants and mass immigrants the opportunity to survive. © Grogan, Brian, Library of Congress

Over time, all of America was filled with colorful images of girls with distinctly Spanish facial features – some against the backdrop of green groves full of colorful fruit, others against the never-setting sun that stopped over a valley surrounded by snowy peaks, and yet others – looking at the blue surface of the Pacific. This fantastic place had a specific address: Los Angeles and the surrounding counties – Riverside, Orange, Ventura and San Bernardino. Thanks to the oranges, America has grown to include a great and – most importantly – accessible paradise, lying no longer in the wild, but in the sunny West. The word “California” was supposed to refer to the past the old and not very positively associated term – “Wild West”.

Although new branches of the economy appeared in the city, the produce of the land throughout the 19th and mid-20th centuries still had a decisive influence on the economy of the city. Until 1950, Los Angeles and its surroundings were the largest fruit producer in the United States. The city was surrounded by huge farms and orchards. Just as 19th-century dreamers wanted – it smelled like orange, strawberries and peaches. The Los Angeles area was 1,286,000 square kilometers of land cultivated intensively thanks to cheap labor – people who came here not only from other parts of the United States, but most of all from Mexico, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Today, agriculture is an insignificant element of the city’s economy. In 1990, crops covered only 73 square kilometers, and their survival was often associated with paradoxical situations. The free land, and therefore suitable for cultivation, was where it was forbidden to erect permanent structures. For example, in 1993, 50,000 tons of onions were harvested, which was grown on the approach to the runway of the US Air Force airport. Electricity distribution companies became the main landowners , and some fruit, seedlings, and small trees were successfully grown under high-voltage power lines.

You are late. The train has already left

Tourists coming to the city will no longer experience the wonderful smell of orange groves. There are two or three plantations left here, but they are kept for sentimental rather than economic reasons. City residents can pick up a bag of oranges with their own hands for a few dollars. The only larger plantation is in the western part of the city, where oranges can be picked from 509 orange trees for free. The plantations and groves in the Central Valley are doing very well. In the 2014-2015 season, 81 million cases of oranges, most of the now legendary Washington Navel species, were shipped to the world. California agriculture continues to be a powerhouse on a global scale. Almost everything that requires good soil, sun and water is grown here. California is a leader in the production of: grapes, olives, plums, peaches, apricots, oranges, lemons, walnuts, strawberries, rice, sweet potatoes, asparagus, lettuce, spinach, apples, pears, avocados, cherries, melons, watermelons, onions and peas. Also: cotton, beef and a sea of milk. The above list is only a brief summary of what gives birth to this land, which can safely be called a paradise. Agriculture and horticulture is a closed chapter in the history of Los Angeles. Today, only the names of neighborhoods and districts, such as Peach Blossom or Lemon Valley, say that there used to be a completely different world here, smelling of heavenly fruits.


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