Canning Tomatoes, Growing "Better and More Perfect Women": The Girls' Tomato Club Movement

By Engelhardt, Elizabeth | Southern Cultures, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview
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Canning Tomatoes, Growing "Better and More Perfect Women": The Girls' Tomato Club Movement


Engelhardt, Elizabeth, Southern Cultures


Tomato Club. Tomato Club. See how we can. See how we can. Give us tomatoes and a good sharp knife-- This is the place to get a good wife. Did ever you see such girls in your life-- As the Tomato Club?  --Tomato Club Song, c. 1914 (1) 

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In 1909, Marie Samuella Cromer, a young rural schoolteacher in the western South Carolina town of Aiken, heard a speech about Seaman A. Knapp's boys' corn clubs that were transforming southern crop yields. Knapp, a scholar originally from the Midwest but working in Texas and the larger South, created the blueprint for the turn-of-the-century U.S. Department of Agriculture outreach programs and the national agricultural extension service. He believed in training local farmers to teach their peers and youth to teach their families in more efficient methods for rural life. Most of the early experiments under his leadership began with men and boys. According to Cromer, she raised her hand to ask, "But what are we doing for the farm girls?" She was not the first audience member across the South to ask such a question, but what made Cromer different was what she did next. By 1910, she had successfully organized a girls' tomato club so that the girls would "not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women." (2) The tomato clubs (which were never really about getting wives, despite the song lyric) and the women who organized them wanted southern food to transform southern society--but not from the top down. Rather, by targeting girls, arguably the most disenfranchised family members, the tomato club movement worked explicitly from the grass--or garden--roots up.

From its beginning in South Carolina in 1910 to its heyday between 1911 and World War I, under the pioneering direction of South Carolina's Cromer and four other former teachers and women's club members, North Carolina's Jane S. McKimmon, Mississippi's Susie Powell, Virginia's Ella Agnew, and Tennessee's Virginia Moore, the girl's tomato club movement swept the southern United States. Singing songs and adopting mottoes, white and African American girls, ages twelve to eighteen, planted 1/10-acre individual plots, worked in groups to can their harvests, and then marketed their wares locally and nationally. Girls' club work filled columns in magazines and newspapers from the New York Times to the Progressive Farmer; as an Oklahoma paper asked rhetorically in 1915, "If somebody were to tell you that a group of little country girls who never have been near a big city have built up a business so large and important that papers all over the country are telling about it, you would think it was a new kind of fairy tale, now wouldn't you?" (3) However poorly known today, that fairy tale of girls' economic success helped put very real money in girls' pockets, some of which went toward pretty dresses and fun but much of which they spent on education for future jobs. Tomato clubs also allowed girls to learn from industrial food production and to master modern technology, and they even fostered interracial cooperation at a time of entrenched segregation.

The tomato club movement is part of a larger story of gender, southern food, and agricultural clubs. In the first decades of the twentieth century, along with the early corn and tomato clubs, youth soon could join clubs for poultry, sewing, hog, and even cotton production. Tomato clubs themselves evolved into more general canning clubs as girls planted their acres with other vegetables and fruits. The federal Smith-Lever Act of 1914 paved the way for extension agencies in every state; after the establishment of home demonstration agencies, the workers who previously oversaw the tomato clubs began to work even more with adult women. As home demonstrators entered adult farmwomen's homes to show them new household technologies or practices, work with girls moved ever more under the new umbrella of 4-H, which served boys as well.

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