The History of Tomatoes in America

Tomatoes were not always grown in North America. A quick look at the history of tomatoes shows that the plant was originally domesticated by Mesoamerican people.

Green Tomato

By the early nineteenth century, tomatoes were present in many towns across America, though many people didn’t eat them for a variety of reasons.

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Savor your best tomato harvest ever with Epic Tomatoes (Epic Tomatoes, 2015) by Craig LeHoullier, a tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange. Epic Tomatoes offers everything a tomato enthusiast needs to know about growing more than 200 varieties of tomatoes. This excerpt, which discusses how tomatoes became popular in America, is from Chapter1, “The Origins of Today’s Tomato.” 

Buy this book from the GRIT store: Epic Tomatoes.

Tomatoes Come to North America

The Mayans and other Mesoamerican people domesticated the tomato plant and first used it in cooking. A mutation was likely responsible for converting the small two-chambered wild types into the larger, lumpy, multi-chambered fruit that represents the vast majority of today’s tomatoes. It is the large tomatoes that were nurtured and developed by Central American farmers. The Aztecs named the plant xitomatl, or large tomatl.

How it was introduced to British North America is a matter of speculation; there are a number of possibilities. The Spanish (who brought tomatoes back from Mexico during the 1520s and then distributed them throughout the Spanish empire and into Asia) consumed tomatoes; they’d had settlements in Florida earlier in the seventeenth century, which could account for tomato introduction into what is now Georgia and the Carolinas. French Huguenot refugees and British colonists could have also brought seeds directly to the Carolinas. Or tomatoes could have come here from the Caribbean, since migration from the British West Indies to the southern colonies began in the late seventeenth century. Some historians consider the Caribbean route to be the most likely, because the term tomato was part of the local language. Whatever the mode of introduction, tomatoes were cultivated in the Carolinas by the middle of the eighteenth century.

“That Sour Trash”

By the early nineteenth century, tomatoes were present in many towns across America, though it appears most people didn’t eat them, for a variety of reasons. First, many colonists from England, Scotland, and Ireland came here before the tomato was commonly eaten in their homeland.

Next, America was physically isolated from the rest of the world leading up to that time, so most people had no idea how popular the tomato was becoming in Europe. Finally, even where there was expanding knowledge of how to grow tomatoes, few recipes were published in books prior to the 1820s.

A Poisonous Perception of Tomatoes

The tomato had a reputation for being poisonous (and some believe this to be true even today) but actual published opinions of such are very rare prior to 1860. In fact, Andrew

Smith, in doing research for his excellent book The Tomato in America, found only a few such references. Among them was a reprinted British medical work that represented obsolete beliefs in England and a statement made by Thomas Jefferson’s grandson indicating that the tomato was considered poisonous when his grandfather was young. It’s interesting to note that the number of references to the potential toxicity of tomatoes rose significantly after 1860. Perhaps stories of the poisonous nature of tomatoes arose from people’s attempts at drama and intrigue and speculation, rather than facts.

In 1852, a physician named Neil Lewis made a presentation in Cincinnati in which he criticized tomatoes. After the talk, a number of people came forward to offer their own complaints. Some testified to suffering from a peculiar condition of the stomach, piles, and tender, bleeding gums and loose teeth, all from eating tomatoes. One story was of a young woman who claimed to have lost all of her teeth after eating a quantity of tomatoes.

The most famous early American tomato story is the daring public tomato consumption —perhaps — by Robert Gibbon Johnson in Salem, New Jersey, reported to have occurred in 1820. Johnson, one of Salem’s prominent citizens, grew tomatoes in his garden from seeds obtained from South America. He planned to publically consume tomatoes that he himself grew, which of course (since tomatoes were widely considered poisonous) created quite a sensation. Hundreds of onlookers reportedly traveled from far and wide to witness this remarkable event. The story goes that Johnson bit into a tomato, some onlookers fainted, and, with Johnson suffering no ill effects, the tomato industry in America began. 

Tomatoes Offended the Senses

Why else did many people shun tomatoes in America prior to the popularity boom of the late 1800s? Some did not like the smell of the tomato plant itself. One woman in upstate New York considered them a beautiful plant but would have preferred cooking “ripe potato balls” than eating the tomatoes themselves, thinking that the odor of the plant was sufficient warning against consumption of the fruit.

Others just didn’t like how they looked. It’s truly remarkable how the mere sight of a ripe

tomato offended so many gardeners. In the 1820s, one gardener in Massachusetts is recorded to have said, “The first time I saw a tomato, they appeared so disgusting that I thought I must be very hungry before I am induced to taste them.”

In the late 1820s in Pennsylvania, J. D. Garber noted that no more than two people in a hundred, on first tasting, would ever be persuaded to taste “that sour trash” a second time.

The dislike of the tomato was not limited to northerners. A North Carolinian, Charles Blietz, in 1831, described a dinner at an inn outside of Richmond, Virginia. He was served sliced red tomatoes (his first experience eating them), and he notes how it spoiled his dinner. He wrote that statement in 1887, confirming that his dislike of tomatoes did not fade with time. S. D. Wilcox of Florida, a noted agriculturist, ate his first tomato in 1836 as the major component of a pie. He said that it was an “errant humbug and deserves forthwith to be consigned to the tomb of the Capulets.”

However, there are many historical instances of tomatoes, either the fruit or extracts and concoctions, being promoted as an agent of health. Because of this, it is surmised that many of those who grew fond of tomatoes started with them in such a manner.

It is also abundantly clear that the flavor of the tomato is often an acquired taste. (I’m sure many of us remember not liking tomatoes when we were children.) The editor of The American Farmer, an early nineteenth-century journal, thought that most people found the flavor disagreeable at first (primarily because of the acidic flavor sensation) but grew to enjoy tomatoes over time. Even Scottish-born John Muir, soon to become one of our preeminent naturalists, noted that English and Scottish settlers in Wisconsin in the 1850s had nothing but contempt for tomatoes, which were “so fine to look at with their sunny colors, but so disappointing to the taste.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1856, agreed that the taste for tomatoes was an acquired one. 

Tomatoes Gain Acceptance in America

A remarkable thing happened in America when, starting in the 1820s, the tomato found its way into more and more gardens, recipes, and restaurants. An article published by Dr. John Bennett in 1834 extolling — with numerous distortions and exaggerations — the health benefits of tomatoes seemed to mark the beginning of the wave of tomato popularity that continues, unabated, today. Certainly, tomatoes were an acquired taste, and once they were accepted, and especially supported by various health claims,

it is no wonder that the call for more different and improved varieties arose to meet the ever expanding recipes and uses.

Tomato Varieties of Early America

Judging from how it was portrayed in the paintings of the day (see Art Imitates Life), the tomato of early America was closer in shape and form

to many of the treasured heirloom types grown today than most probably realize. What we are less certain about is the range of color and flavor,

since the relative novelty of the tomato meant that there was nothing to which to compare those very first varieties available in the mid-1800s.

Tomatoes were sold, with primary demands coming from French immigrants, by the Landreths in Philadelphia in the 1790s, and the

first tomato seeds were being sold by 1800. By the 1830s, tomato seeds were sold throughout the country. Looking at old seed catalogs reveals that the “varieties” were often distinguished by no more than a color and size. Efforts to improve tomatoes began with a need for early ripening, in order to avoid the significant price drop that would occur when tomatoes would arrive en masse at the peak of the season and glut the market. 

Early Tomato Seed Saving

Early efforts at improving tomatoes focused on saving seed from particular fruits that exhibited a desired characteristic. This proved to be unsuccessful, and it wasn’t until Alexander Livingston’s breakthrough — using single plant, rather than single fruit, selection — that a reliable tomato-improvement method arose. Another method of tomato improvement resulted in a true breakthrough. Dr. T. J. Hand of New York crossed cherry tomatoes with the large, lumpy varieties that were common at the time. It is assumed that Dr. Hand then spent some time growing out his crosses and carrying out selections to achieve his particular goal, which ended up being the variety Trophy, a tomato with a “solid mass of flesh and juice, small seeds, and smooth skin.” The promoter, Colonel George Waring, sold seeds of Trophy for 25 cents apiece. Others became involved in selecting and

breeding tomatoes, and some of these early efforts are documented in Fearing Burr’s Field and Garden Vegetables of America, initially published in 1863. In the book, Mr. Burr lists 24 tomatoes varieties. Even at this early date, it is clear that there was confusion about tomato names, as well as color. Some descriptions offered multiple names for certain varieties, or indications that a particular tomato appeared to be essentially the same as

another. Simply from reading the text it is difficult to confirm whether the tomato is red (yellow skin over red flesh) or pink (clear skin over red flesh). It is comforting — or frustrating — to note that the same ambiguous discussions of tomato varieties that are commonplace today have been going on for 150 years!

Naming Early Tomatoes

Many of the early tomato names are fairly unimaginative and pretty much descriptive of the appearance. It was many years before the advent of names such as Big Boy that indicated the supposedly superlative nature of a given seed company’s newest creations.

Here are some of the tomatoes listed in Burr’s 1863 guide, with synonyms in parentheses:  Apple Tomato (Apple Shaped), Bermuda, Cook’s Favorite, Fejee, Fig (Red Pear), Giant (Mammoth), Grape (Cluster), Improved Apple, Large Red, Large Red Oval, Large Yellow, Lester’s Perfected, Mexican, Red Cherry, Red Plum, Round Red, Round Yellow, Seedless, Tree Tomato (de Laye), White, White’s Extra Early (Early Red), Yellow Cherry, Yellow Pear Shaped, and Yellow Plum.  The Vegetable Garden of 1885 by MM.

Vilmorin-Andrieux listed 22 varieties of tomato: Apple Shaped, Apple Shaped Purple (Acme), Apple Shaped Red (Hathaway’s Excelsior), Belle de Leuville, Cherry, Early Dwarf Red, Favorite, Green Gage, Jaune Petite, King Humbert, Large Red, Large Early Red, Large Yellow, Pear Shaped (Fig), Red Currant, Rose Colored Smooth Criterion, Smooth Red Curled Leaf, Stamford, Tree (de Laye), Trophy, Turk’s Cap, and Yellow Pear. 

Alexander Livingston Refines the Tomato’s Selection Process

How did we get from the paltry selection of tomatoes available as recently as the 1880s to the stunning and overwhelming collection of tomatoes that we are able to select from today, the number of which is likely over 10,000 in terms of unique names? The seed houses at the time did their best to improve the tomato, but it was the work of Alexander Livingston that provided the breakthrough.

Misconceptions abounded when considering efforts to improve the tomato prior to 1870. Most felt that by simply saving seeds from a particular tomato that exhibited a distinct characteristic — be it earliness, smoothness, or lack of cracking — and growing them the following year, the tomatoes on the plants that resulted would move toward the improvement. As an example, if a particular variety ripened its fruit later than one hoped, saving seed from the first ripe tomatoes on the plants would, with any luck, result in an earlier variety. The problem with the theory of single-fruit selections is that all tomatoes from a particular plant contain seeds that are essentially the same genetically.

And this is why tomato improvements were so stubborn, until the efforts of Mr. Alexander Livingston of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. Livingston, the founder of what would become the Livingston Seed Company, had a revelation: rather than focusing on the fruits, he looked at large plantings of tomatoes and selected a particular plant that showed a favorable characteristic. He correctly assumed that there was something genetically different about that particular plant, and that if seeds were saved from tomatoes from that plant, an improved variety was possible, given some further selection work.

In truth, a different plant in a fairly uniform planting could well be a rare mutation, or the result of cross pollination; either way, it was an appropriate starting point for new varieties. Using his new single-plant selection technique, Livingston went on to revolutionize the tomato in America. Between his first new tomato introduction, Paragon (1870), and the later Globe (1906), the Livingston Seed Company introduced a set of tomatoes that represented significant improvements on what had come before, typically in terms of relative smoothness and uniformity of shape. This was

at a time when many tomatoes were irregularly shaped, leading to considerable waste in the canning process (during a period when canning was a burgeoning industry and very important to many farmers and home gardeners for ensuring tomato supplies during the off season).

More from Epic Tomatoes:

Roasted Tomato Sauce Recipe with Sweet Peppers
Helpful Tips to Harvesting Tomatoes


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Epic Tomatoes, by Craig LeHoullier and published by Storey Publishing, 2015.