I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two years renovating my house which was built in 1901. During the long periods of scraping the filth of ages off floors and walls, I’ve had ample opportunity to contemplate the social history of its layout and construction. The house is a modest 4 bedroom Edwardian semi, but at the time it was built, the back of the house was the living and working area for a cook/housekeeper and the “family” lived at the front. There are some odd divisions of social class, for example, the plaster in “family” area is good quality and has worn well, in the kitchen and scullery it is poor quality and appears to have more of a horse than just its hair in its composition (it is a strange crumbly brown). There was a lot of food and energy storage in the scullery with room for a lot of preserves, dried foods and at least a ton of coal. I’m guessing, but the layout of the garden has not changed much, the house is located on the west side of a suburban valley and is a series of terraces, the largest and highest is just above the level of the house’s roof and provides a 50 square meter vegetable patch.
I’ve recently acquired what appears to be a bound volume of gardening books which were originally published between 1890 and 1923. My new year’s resolution was never to buy another gardening book (I have never previously bought ir read a gardening book) and as this one is three inches thick, I will not need to. Despite not having an establishment of gardeners or extensive greenhouses, I like this book, it is a blend of history, practical information and encouragement to distribute herbivore poo at every opportunity.
The section on tomatoes is entitled “Tomato Culture for Amateurs” and written by B.C. Ravenscroft, there is no publication date, but the text suggests that it was written in 1890. Mr. Ravenscroft is of the opinion that tomatoes became established in private gardens towards the end of the 18th century more for ornament that kitchen use. At the time it was known as “Mala Peruviana” or “Pomi del Peru” and was found on the west coast of the Americas from Peru to California. The writing suggests that the author was a commercial grower and this adds another layer of interest to the book. It seems that tomatoes only became a serious commercial crop in the second half of the 19th century and it’s popularity made made cultivation a profitable business (other parts of the book suggest that vegetable growing was not always profitable). In a poor year, tomatoes sold for 1d to 1 1/2d per pound which is roughly equivalent to £1.50 per kg in today’s money. Maybe, in a good year tomatoes sold for £3 – £4 per kg which is comparable to the supermarket price today. There is veiled contempt for cheap French imports.
I started growing tomatoes about five years ago, the first year there was a tomato and last year there was a reasonable crop and this year I want more ripe ones. Initially I grew “Moneymaker” because some told me they were easy and did not need support (not strictly correct). Last year I planted a mix of “Moneymaker”, “Roma” and “Ailsa Craig”, the latter worked well and would have been even better had I not let them become an untidy mess. This year it will be “Ailsa Craig” and maybe one other. With my mild obsession with micro-history, I looked at the list which Mr. Ravenscroft considered a good choice for outdoor growing:
- Large Red
- Laxton’s Open Air
- Dwarf Orangefield (a.k.a. Early Dwarf, Little Gem)
- Hackwood Park
- Golden Nugget
- Earliest of All
- Horsford’s Prelude
- Conference (a hybrid)
Googling these names to see if any seeds were available in the UK suggests that the tomato has evolved since leaving Peru, I found several hundred varieties. So far, the only conclusion I have come to is that Americans are more interested in tomato history than the British.