Had Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence, been alive at the time, he no doubt would have been delighted to see the “Liberty Bell” created for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was quite a sight—6,500 oranges meticulously piled into a monument to freedom and democracy, courtesy of some deft souls from California.
Jefferson not only played an important role in the birth of the nation but was also an avid horticulturalist who cherished a good apple or pear. And although he never made it to California, he left his mark on the American West by securing the Louisiana Purchase and masterminding the rectangular survey that divided the region up into manageable boxes. How profoundly happy he would have been to find that, clear across the continent, his efforts were literally bearing fruit.
By the turn of the century, huge changes were afoot in daily life. Selfsufficiency at home gave way to mass production. Many of the items that Americans had come to depend on—from food and clothing to cars and cigarettes— now came from distant factories. A new and radically different system of distribution emerged to market these products, centered on brand names and advertising. By 1910, this new consumer economy catapulted the United States into the greatest industrial power on the face of the earth.
From an environmental perspective, consumerism involved equally radical changes. Its most important legacy stemmed from the separation in space of production from consumption. The growth of specialized, one-crop industrial agriculture in places such as California brought the commercialization of farming to a new level. Just as oranges traveled to the Midwest for the exposition, by the turn of the century California factory farms routinely sent trainloads of fruit—enough to build millions of orange, pear, plum, and cherry bells—across the nation to the tables of American consumers.
Meanwhile, the farms that once dominated the outskirts of New York City, until the turn of the century the nation's most important produce-growing center, lost ground to competitors in California and the South. In California especially, orchardists operated free from the worry of frost, which periodically buffeted New York growers. Capitalizing on a more favorable climate, on cheap labor from Asia and later Mexico, and on the virtues of speedy, refrigerated train travel, California's fruit and vegetable growers went on to become the richest farmers in the nation. As early as 1927, two-thirds of all canned fruit purchased in the United States originated in the Golden State. By 1980, two-fifths of all the nation's fresh produce was grown there. The rise of this moveable feast, however, exacted a high social and ecological price.