How the Tomato Girls Changed the South

The locavore movement has brought with it a renewed interest in canning and preservation, but somewhat ironically, it was the advent of canning that hastened the movement away from seasonal eating.

After the Civil War ended slavery in the South, an entire generation of women had to learn how to prepare food for themselves. Georgian Annabella P. Hill authored the quintessential post-Civil War cookbook, Mrs. Hill's Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, first published in 1867. Her wide variety of recipes for vegetables now read like a menu from Chez Panisse—there are methods of cooking eggplants, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks, nasturtium blossoms, parsnips, salsify, and watercress.

"Vegetables intended for dinner should be gathered early in the morning. A few only can be kept twelve hours without detriment," Hill writes.

But change was already on the way. John Mason patented his famous jar in 1858, and the popularity of preserving goods began to rise quickly.

According to a recent blog post by Mandy Mastrovita of the Digital Library of Georgia, the rise of canning in the early 20th century was spearheaded by the USDA: "By the early twentieth century, rural girls joined ‘canning clubs,' agricultural organizations that preceded cooperative extension programs and 4-H clubs; here, girls learned how to cultivate and preserve tomatoes. …

"Also known as ‘tomato clubs' throughout the South, these organizations were established for young women as the counterpart to boys' ‘corn clubs;' all were part of a Southern initiative overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to encourage crop diversity and mitigate the impact of the boll weevil. Both corn and tomatoes grew plentifully in Southern soil, and both crops generated profits. Tomatoes, which required minimal processing for longer-term storage, could be preserved quickly and efficiently in the Southern home kitchen; conveniently, their natural acidity hindered spoilage."

The USDA's work was also supported by the Progressive movement. In a 2001 article in the The Journal of Mississippi History, Danny Moore states, "Progressives … acknowledged from the beginning that girls' club work would open homes of adult women to home economists. More efficient homemaking, they reasoned, would bring lasting changes in the nature of rural home production and improve the physical and psychological health of the entire farm family."

Moore says that the Progressive reformers' real aim in recruiting girls into tomato clubs was to convince their mothers that the girls needed education. The head of the Mississippi effort, Susie V. Powell, reminisced in 1939 that "teaching the pioneer tomato girls ‘To Make the Best Better' led them to careers in teaching, both at the high school and college levels; in business, as proprietors of tearooms and other commercial ventures; in library work; and in journalism."

So I guess you could say that thanks to canning, I have a job today.