A load of apples on a truck in the early 1900s. ( The Packer )

Only about 250,000 immigrants had come to America after the Revolution, up until 1819. Of the 50,000,000 people in the mass exodus from Europe after the Napoleonic wars, 35,000,000 of them came to the United States, the great bulk of this group between 1850 and 1900. Many went west, but many stayed to help man the factories, railroads and other commercial activities.

The outlines of an organized, self-contained produce industry, before quite vague, were beginning to form. Wholesale markets were gaining size, the ranks of commission merchants were increasing, as 
producer-shipper sought new markets in the rapidly growing cities. Robert Howard looks at the seamy side of the picture:

“They (rail produce shipments) came, into the demanding debutante cities, to dealers who were a name only to the growers, who perhaps would pay for the goods after they had been sold, perhaps close their offices along the Washington and Dock street and Faneull Hall markets without a forwarding address but with the profits... they (the fruits and vegetables) were graded for size and color and shape and priced for these qualifications. with never a thought for their health values, their minerals, their starches.”

It happened that way a lot of times, of course. But let’s also remember there are many proud family names in the commission merchant ranks which haven’t moved in over 100 years.

Cross country rail transportation became a reality in 1869 with the driving of the “golden spike” at Provo, Utah. The development of the rolled steel rail in 1870, the successful application of air brakes to freight trains by George Westinghouse in 1887, and the arrival of a workable refrigerator car made it full steam ahead he transportation front.
Refrigeration as a viable, universally workable tool came a bit later. Natural ice had been harvested for generations, but not until mid- century was it used for much besides cold drinks and ice cream. The principle of mechanical refrigeration had been long been known to European scientists, but it was not until a German, Carl von Linde, invented the ammonia compressing machine in 1876, that things started crackling. Three years later there were 35 commercial ice plants in the U.S., 10 years later 200 and by 1900, a total of 2,000. Ice and cold storage facilities were ample for all requirements now.

Three other events of historic interest took place in this period. The Great American Tea Company, later to become The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, was founded with one store by Gilman and Hartford in 1858. In 1872, Jones Bros. Tea Company (now Grand Union) opened for business. Finally, on March 20,1899, United Fruit Company was incorporated in New Jersey.

Four states had joined the original 13 between 1776 and 1800. Sixteen came in during the next 50 years. Thirteen joined the Union between 1850 and 1900.

It was time to catch one’s second breath, so much had happened so fist in the proceeding 50 years. And, even if no one was disposed to stop and assess the situation, World War I supplied a sort of natural brake to business at large. Victory gardens replaced plans for new packing houses, and military needs made greater demands on the economic and social structure than had the Civil War.

One fact was dear. In the preceding 100 years, the United States had clearly moved from an agricultural nation to an industrial society, despite the field and orchard expansion on the West Coast. Population had increased from 5.3 million in 1800 to 75.9 million in 1890 and was to increase another 50 million in the next 50 years. Farm population, peaking at around 32 million in 1910, was destined to decrease sharply in the next 10 years, and the trend still continues.

World War I didn’t completely stop everything, of course. Federal-State Market News Service started operating in 1915. National irrigation, which had accounted for only 3.2 million acre feet of water in 1889, needed 14.4 million acre feet in 1909, and 19.2 million in 1919 (things sort of leveled off at around 21 to 22 million acre feet after that).
While New Jersey had adopted the first state highway law in 1890, little activity in road building started until well after 1900 and Federal highway aid didn’t commence until 1915.

World War 1 ended, prohibition was scheduled to amuse and confound the country from 1918 ’till 1932, and we entered the last quarter of the bicentennial period.

Imagine the motion picture camera focusing in on the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, neatly stacked and ready to be fitted into place. Then through trick photography, we see each piece exploding into the air and finding its correct place in the puzzle.

Something like that happened to the nation’s fresh fruit and vegetable activities starting in the late 1920s. The “produce trade,” as it had been largely known for the better part of a century, suddenly became the “produce industry.” The new tools we’d been gradually developing to produce and handle our products, and the trends which had been operating, blended their forces to change the “fruit peddler” into a sophisticated, respected business man.

The two major tools, transportation and refrigeration, were ready. The continental rail network was complete ( perhaps a trifle over-complete, as things turned out later). Management, equipment and operating techniques had been improved, all along the line. The mechanical refrigeration had been improved, all along the line. The mechanical refrigerator car was the only new component to be added in the years ahead. As the national highway network came nearer, truck designers and imaginative produce handlers combined talent. Between 1930 and 1950, over-the-road trucks took over a substantial portion of the national produce transport. Air transport came at the end of World War II.

Refrigeration was moving from ice plants and commercial cold storages to smaller storages and “holding boxes” for shipper, wholesaler and retailer, to retail display itself (even the consumer got into the picture: 6,000 home mechanical refrigerators were manufactured in 1921, one million in 1931, six million in 1931).

Consumers, long since deprived of cellar through the advent of central heating, apartment house living and other developments, were literally nudged into the pattern of shopping more frequently and more aggressively for fresh fruits and vegetables. About this time, the produce people discovered the consumer.

This, coupled with other natural “jigsaw” developments, brought sharp, rapid changes into the overall marketing picture. The Hartford brothers and the founders of Piggly Wiggly weren’t the only ones to grasp the potentials of “serve yourself.” In a few dramatic, fast moving years, the commission merchant, farmer’s market and “poppa and mamma” stores moved to one side, making way for the supermarket and the chain store pattern. The onetime “Big Three” — A & P., Kroger and Safeway — began to share their produce dominance with Grand Union, Red Owl, Winn Dixie and an increasing array of others.

A recent issue of The Packer Red Book listed around 360 corporate chains, voluntaries and cooperatives who buy 60 per cent or more of their produce requirements “away from home.” They buy direct through their own men at shipping point, local buyers, established procurement agencies like Topco Associates, wholesalers like Pacific Fruit & Produce or their own local brokers.

The industry “showcase” has grown. Procurement perspectives, in less than 100 years, have expanded from local, to nearby, to intercontinental, to global. Supermarket display racks of 1976 will contain just about every fresh fruit and vegetable grown in the world.

Packaging became an integral part of the explosion. Elementary at the turn of the century, it blossomed into making “a box to fit the product.” The lumber industry, USDA and produce experimenters developed nailed wooden boxes and veneer packages that did a good job. Corrugated and fiberboard entered the picture after World War II and now pretty well dominate it. They have been joined by plastics and films (especially in the realm of consumer packaging).

There have been innumerable rough spots and they will probably increase in both count and abrasiveness. But, as we approach 1976, the produce industry can confidently assert that it has gracefully accepted and directed the evolution “from cellar to supermarket.”

 
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