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The Social History Of A Singular Fruit

July 2024
13min read

In southern California the orange found a home.

For more than thirty years it stood at the corner of Highland Avenue and Del Rosa Avenue in San Bernardino, California, bordered at the rear by a line of eucalyptus trees and behind that by a thirty-acre grove of fat green trees that joined others in a march to the foothills of the San Bernardino Range. It billed itself as “The World’s Largest Orange Juice Stand,” and perhaps it was. It was big enough—a monstrous globe about sixty feet in diameter, constructed of plaster and chicken wire over a rickety wooden framework and painted a glistening orange. For a mile or so before you came to it, crude signs along the sides of the roads announced its presence, though they were hardly necessary; rising high above the groves, the stand could be seen for at least two miles.

In the days of its glory it dispensed cold, freshly squeezed orange juice from a fountainlike machine that kept the golden brew in constant motion, spraying it up in thin curving jets for aeration, bubbling and gurgling provocatively. The stand did a fairly brisk business in grapefruit juice and lemonade, too, but it was the juice of the orange that was its mainstay—that, and the oranges themselves, stacked in bins and boxes in shining mounds or stuffed into string bags in bunches often pounds each. The sweet tang of the orange was the smell that pervaded the place like some vaguely exotic perfume that had wafted in from a distant land. There was something unreal about that smell, but there was no denying the reality of the stand’s most persistent sound: a cash register kept in a constant clang.

Then in the early 1950’s time caught up with “The World’s Largest Orange Juice Stand,” as it does with most things in southern California. The land behind it was sold off to a real-estate developer and the fat orange trees ripped out of the earth and replaced with a spread of look-alike houses. For two or three years, the stand stood abandoned. Small boys threw large rocks at it, puncturing its dusty orange hide with ragged holes, and when the Santa Ana —southern California’s version of the mistral —came whipping down the valley through San Gorgonio Pass in the spring, its wind set up an unearthly howling through the structure. Finally, the bulldozers came for it, too, and the stand disappeared. The citizens of San Bernardino did not protest its destruction, nor did the city fathers arrange a proper ceremony to mark its passing. Perhaps they should have, for “The World’s Largest Orange Juice Stand,” like the hundreds of similar stands scattered throughout southern California between about 1920 and 1950, was a kind of monument—one of the last symbols of an age in which a simple globed fruit became the living expression of an entire culture.


The orange had come a long way in its journey to the semidesert of southern California and had taken centuries in the passage. Probably first cultivated in India nearly two thousand years ago, where it was called nagrunga , by the fifth century it had spread to most of the civilized world. A bitter, shriveled little thing in its original form, it was generally used for medicinal purposes, although the sybaritic Romans mixed its juice with sugar and drank it down like nectar. The Arabs of North Africa called it naranji , and when the Moors invaded Spain in the early eighth century they carried the fruit with them. By the middle of the fifteenth century much of southern Spain blossomed with its trees, and in the fields surrounding Valencia rich soil and painstaking cultivation had produced a variety that was sweet to the tongue.

The seeds of the Valencia orange were carried to the New World when the Spanish crossed the sea in the fifteenth century. The missionary priests—whose ostensible duty was to harvest souls but one of whose practical functions was to fill the bellies of the conquistadors and their minions—planted those seeds in the fertile, semitropical soil of Mexico and cultivated the resulting trees with Indian-slave laborers. In time, the orange became one of the staples of New World diet, carried from one frontier to another as the thrust of Spanish empire inexorably moved north and west. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the orange fluorished in Sonora and in the long finger of Baja California, and when the decision was made to colonize Alta California in 1769, orange seeds and cuttings were among the baggage hauled north by land and sea.

In southern California the orange found a home. Healthy groves soon sprouted around missions San Diego de Alcalá, San Gabriel, San Fernando, and Santa Barbara, as well as the region’s major civilian colony, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio Porciuncula (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels by the Porciuncula River)—today called Los Angeles, among other things. It was still a subsistence crop, however, fodder for local soldiers and settlers; Spanish laws did not encourage trade of any sort, and even after the more lenient rule that followed the creation of the Mexican Republic in 1821, the California mission orange was little known beyond the galley of an occasional American or British whaler or hide-and-tallow ship.

Enter mountain man William Wolfskill, a refugee from the dying fur trade. He had pioneered a trail from Taos to Los Angeles in 1831 and late in the decade decided to settle down in southern California. He took up a two-acre plot of land near the pueblo and purchased some orange cuttings and budwood (small orange trees) from the mission priests at San Gabriel. By 1848, when California became an American territory with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Wolfskill’s oranges were being munched appreciatively as far north as Oregon. The Gold Rush of 1849-52, when at least one hundred thousand people scrabbled around after treasure in northern California, expanded his market considerably, and within a few years his grove had grown to seventy acres and the number of his trees to sixteen thousand, a good deal more than half of the twenty-five thousand orange trees under cultivation in the state by 1870.

Wolfskill’s near-monopoly was short-lived. In 1870, Judge John Wesley North, of Knoxville, Tennessee, organized a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-west entrepreneurs, bought four thousand acres of desert land sixty-five miles northeast of Los Angeles, and founded an agricultural colony called Riverside. In 1871, at a cost of $50,000, the Riverside colonists dug an irrigation canal from the anemic Santa Ana River to their land and began raising oranges. Similar settlements sprang up at Pasadena, Ontario, Redlands, Placentia, Anaheim, Duarte, and San Bernardino, and in all of them the growing of oranges and other citrus fruits was the predominant industry. By the middle of the 1870’s, more than ninety thousand orange trees had been planted, producing an average annual net profit of $20.50 per tree, or $1,435 per acre.

In 1876 the Southern Pacific Railroad completed a line from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and the following year William Wolfskill, with crossed fingers and high hopes, packed oranges on ice and sent a railroad car full of them to St. Louis on the Southern Pacific’s transcontinental hookup at Sacramento. It took what was called the “orange car” a month to arrive, but more than half the fruit survived the journey in good shape and was an instantaneous success—and made a handsome profit for Wolfskill. In 1882 the Southern Pacific opened its line from Los Angeles to New Orleans, and four years later the Santa Fe began its own transcontinental run from San Diego; at about the same time, the refrigerated railroad car was developed, and on February 14, 1886, the first entire train carrying nothing but oranges was sent out of Los Angeles. From then on, the East became the single largest market for California oranges.

Coincidental with the sudden flowering of the industry was the discovery and cultivation of a very special kind of orange. In about 1810, in Brazil, nature produced one of her more splendied mutants—a large, seedless, and succulent orange that ripened in winter (the Valencia came to fruit in the late spring and early summer). It was called the Bahia, or navel—after the buttonlike protuberance on its skin—and in 1870 it was encountered by a Presbyterian missionary in Brazil by the name of F.I.C. Schneider. Entranced with this strange fruit, Schneider sent budwood to William Saunders, of the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, and in 1873 Saunders sent three small trees to Luther and Eliza Tibbetts, a couple who had joined the Riverside colony and had asked Saunders for advice on what to grow. One of the trees died upon replanting, but the other two flourished; soon, the Tibbettses were getting five dollars a bud from eager growers, and within fifteen years more than a million navel orange trees had been planted.

With the development of the winter-ripening navel to go with the summer-ripening Valencia, the completion of the transcontinental railroads, the invention of the refrigerator car, and an expanding Eastern market, southern California not only had its first year-round “money crop,” but half a nation of hungry buyers for it and a way to get it to them. By 1900 there were 5,648,714 trees under-cultivation, and five or six thousand carloads of oranges were being sent east every year.

Marketing, however, was a haphazard, cutthroat, and confusing affair. When a man sent two or three carloads of oranges to, say, St. Louis or Chicago, he had no way of knowing how many other growers might be doing so at the same time; if too many oranges arrived, the market would be glutted and quite often the grower would be presented with a shipping bill in excess of what his crop had brought at the point of sale. Moreover, he was utterly at the mercy of middlemen—jobbers and wholesalers in the East—whose distribution techniques were frequently slipshod and always designed to produce the quickest dollar possible (for them). It was a situation common to most of American agriculture at the time, but the average grower of California oranges was no simple yeoman farmer; he was a middle-aged transplant who had already made a respectable bundle in one business or another—a working pragmatist with experience and a determination to get his share of whatever pie might be available. It was not long before the growers got together, in the venerable American tradition, and in the process they developed one of the largest and most successful agricultural cooperatives in history.

The first attempt at organization was the Orange Growers Protective Union of Southern California, formed in 1885 and designed to oversee the sale and distribution of the crop in the East. The union did not require its stockholders to use its services exclusively, however, and it soon folded under pressure from the jobbers, who promptly got together themselves, divided up the sales territory, and refused to buy except on their own terms. Two smaller organizations were more successful : the Pachappa Orange Growers Association, of Riverside, formed in 1889, and the Claremont California Fruit Growers Association, of Claremont, formed in 1893. Both of these required their members to share in the costs of having their fruit “weighed, culled, graded, packed, sold, shipped, or otherwise disposed of,” and each member received his share of the proceeds on a prorata basis according to the quantity and quality of his individual crop. Similar independent associations were formed throughout southern California, and it soon became apparent that if the cooperative system worked reasonably well on a small scale, it might work spectacularly well on a large scale. So thought the Riverside Press & Horticulturist , at any rate: “It is so evident that no plan would be worse than the want of one, which now afflicts us, that it should be easy to better the conditions for another year. The damage done by the shipping of inferior fruit at prices leaving profit only to the railroad, the packer, and the commissionman, is far greater than could possibly result from pooling of all grades by the growers themselves. … The outlook for success in the movement is extremely encouraging.”

The little newspaper’s prose may have been murky, but its instincts were correct. On August 29, 1893, sixty orange growers, most of them representing one association or another, met in the assembly room of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and organized the Southern California Fruit Exchange. The region’s citrus-growing areas were divided into districts, each with a local association that would do its own picking, grading, and packing under a purely local brand. The exchange itself would handle the marketing and distribution of the fruit, break the grip of the middlemen, and distribute all profits to the individual associations, which would then pass them down the line to the growers on a prorata basis. As might be expected, Eastern jobbers put up a vigorous opposition to the whole idea, but by 1905 the exchange had established itself as the principal marketer for California fruits. It changed its name to the California Fruit Growers Exchange and in 1907 developed its own “Sunkist” label for fruit of the highest grade. In 1908 an advertising department was created, and in the winter of that year it spent $ 10,000 on a saturation campaign in Iowa, setting up billboards planting advertisements, and sending out “orange trains” bannered with such slogans as “Oranges for Health—California for Wealth!” While orange sales in the rest of the country picked up some 20 per cent that winter, in Iowa they increased by 50 per cent, and muscular advertising campaigns became a major part of the exchange’s operations; over the next forty years it would spend more than $37 million on promotion, until “Sunkist” became almost synonymous with California fruits (in recognition of this fact, in 1952 the exchange took on the name Sunkist Growers, Inc.).


From 1920 to 1950, the best years of its life, the exchange’s president was Charles Collins Teague, himself the owner of the 3,25O-acre Limoneira Ranch, one of the largest citrus farms in the world. Under his direction the exchange grew to a very monolith of marketing in a system that was a peculiarly American kind of capitalistic socialism (or socialistic capitalism)—although Teague himself preferred to call it a “federated democracy.” By the end of World War n there were more than 350,000 acres under cultivation, and the exchange had grown to a membership of 13,500 growers divided into twenty-six districts with 210 local packing associations whose brand names rang with an ineffable charm: Cupid, Oriole, Ivanhoe, Stalwart, Royal Feast, King David, Esperanza, Miracle, California Dream. … It shipped more than 75 per cent of California’s citrus crop every year, and its annual orange sales alone amounted to $50 or $60 million, nearly one tenth the value of the state’s entire agricultural production (itself the largest of any state in the nation). It was an all-purpose, all-pervasive organization, as fully integrated as any private corporation, from timber properties and a lumber mill and factory in northern California for the manufacture of packing crates to subsidiary plants converting culls into citric acid, sodium citrate, lemon oil, pectin, orange oil, and orange pulp for cattle feed. For mile after mile the trees spread over the land, their shining green foliage ornamented with the bright punctuation of their fruit: Valencias southeast from Santa Barbara to fill the Ojai and Santa Clara valleys, then skipping the San Fernando mountains to pick up again in Pasadena. Here the winter-ripening navel orange took precedence, extending in an almost unbroken line east through Arcadia, Monrovia, Azusa, Cucamonga, Glendora, Claremont, Upland, Pomona, Ontario, Colton, San Bernardino, and Redlands, and then spreading south to beyond Riverside—more than one hundred miles of orange trees. In the coastal plain, Valencias flourished again, creating an independent belt from Fullerton south through Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, Tustin, and San Juan Capistrano—another fifty miles of golden-globed trees. The orange had not merely found a home; it had conquered a territory.

The orange as industry had established itself, but what of the orange as culture symbol? Listen to Ma Joad speaking in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939: “I like to think how nice it’s gonna be, maybe, in California. Never cold. An’ fruit ever’place, an’ people just bein’ in the nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees. I wonder—that is, if we all got jobs an’ all work—maybe we can get one of them little white houses. An’ the little fellas go out an’ pick oranges right off the tree.” Ma Joad did not get her little white house among the orange trees; she and her family found themselves dead up against it in California’s Central Valley. But the houses were there, and the trees, and they were inextricably bound up with what the rest of America (and much of the world) thought California was. In selling a product, the Sunkist growers had done a remarkable thing : they had sold an image and a way of life.

For some, there was the quality of the unreal, the strange, even the exotic about that way oflife. So it was for Jeffrey, the protagonist of John P. Marquand’s So Little Time (1943), as he drove through the San Bernardino Valley: “It was not his country and it never would be, no matter how long he remained there. Its people had come from everywhere. … They had come there with their savings to die in the sun, or else they had come to live again and grow oranges. Most of the valley floor was very green from the square miles of orange groves. Everyone was growing oranges. … The air was redolent of orange blossoms, but Jeffrey had nothing whatsoever to do with it. It was not his country.”

It may not have been Jeffrey’s country, but for those who had indeed come from everywhere—though most from the Middle West—to grow oranges, it was a good country, and a profitable one for many. “To own an orange grove in southern California is to live on the real gold coast of American agriculture,” Carey McWilliams wrote in 1946. “It is not by chance that millionaire row in Pasadena should be called Orange Grove Avenue.” They were not farmers, and they did not call themselves farmers; they were growers, but many had little or nothing to do with even that part of the business. They lived in among the orange trees in their big or little white houses and their most strenuous agricultural activity was in stepping out the back door and picking a few oranges for breakfast. Upon request, the exchange would do everything else: it planted, irrigated, pruned, sprayed the necessary pesticides, operated smudge pots on bitter winter mornings to prevent frost, harvested, culled, packed, shipped, and sold the crop for the owner, who would then walk down to the mailbox one day and find a fat check, less a suitable fee for services rendered. It was not the worst way in the world in which to make a living.

They were white, middle-class (and frequently middleaged), and Protestant, full of the pious certitudes of the type. The towns they built were clean and respectable and quiet, with more churches than bars, more hardware stores than whorehouses. They were staunchly conservative and brooked no nonsense from radicals or agitators—particularly labor agitators who periodically attempted to organize the Mexican workers who tended and harvested the fruit, only to find themselves facing the full weight of official and occasionally vigilante opposition. The Mexicans themselves were kept rigidly in their “place,” which usually was a squalid little Jimtown on the other side of whatever tracks were available. Theaters, swimming pools, and churches were segregated quite as thoroughly as in any town of the Deep South. The attitudes and the platitudes of the southern California orange grower dominated the politics and society of the region for more than fifty years.

As for the orange itself, no one could escape its presence. In the spring, summer, fall, and winter, the smell of its blossoms was always there, as pervasive, though not as visible, as the oily smudge that hung in the air on frost days, penetrating eyes, ears, noses, and throats and spoiling freshly hung washing. The central event of the region was the annual National Orange Show held every February in San Bernardino. a two-week extravaganza of respectable dimensions. Oranges were stacked in the shape of movie stars, Walt Disney characters, and great events in history; carnival rides whirred and buzzed and whined, and barkers touted the charms of dancing ladies; the Fruit Growers Exchange set up a complete packing plant on the grounds, so that people could watch oranges bouncing and hobbling along conveyor belts on their way to their boxes; technological marvels and industrial products of all kinds were on display; and the delights of the whole thing were broadcast to the entire nation by the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who staged their radio shows in the Orange Show auditorium.

It was a rigid and singularly narrow way of life, this culture of the orange—and until World War n, seemingly permanent. But between 1940 and 1950, the population of southern California rose from a little over three and one-half million to more than five and one-half million. Those two million additional people had to live somewhere, and most of the best land sprouted orange trees. Inevitably, the value of the land for housing and industrial development outstripped its value as a producer of oranges, and one-by-one the groves diminished, eaten into by housing, shopping centers, freeways, industrial parks, and all the concrete and asphalt components of the postwar world. A postwar boom in the Florida orange industry and the development there of frozen concentrates further crippled the business in southern California, and within twenty years the acreage under cultivation had dropped by more than half.

Which is not to say that the industry died; it simply moved—to the wide-open irrigated spaces of California’s Central Valley and southern Arizona, where most of the oranges now packed and shipped under the Sunkist label stretch out in groves the size of cattle ranches. But a culture had been shoveled into the dustbin of history, and there was another symbol to mark its passing: in 1949 the huge National Orange Show auditorium in San Bernardino burned down. For hours that day, a monstrous dark cloud of smoke hung over the town. In the evening, the cloud was colored by the setting sun. The color was orange.

Crating up the California Dream


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