Call it an early version of viral marketing. Promoters of two products -- a fruit and the region that grew it -- created hundreds of images of oranges, orange trees, and orange groves during the reign of Southern California's Orange Empire. They then leveraged the social network of the time -- the mail -- to broadcast those images far and wide. And, these promoters didn't pay a cent; tourists purchased the images as picture-postcards and then bought the stamps that carried them across the nation.
A new book by David Boulé, "The Orange and the Dream of California," collects many of those images into 176 richly illustrated pages, exploring the historical associations between the Golden State and the "golden apple."
Published by Angel City Press, the book draws from the extensive private collection the author has assembled over many years. Boulé has found some 600 distinct postcard images alone -- some of them serially reproduced and retouched, evolving with each printing. Also in his collection: electric juicers, packing crates, and even silverware that was part of a clever Sunkist marketing campaign. All these documents and artifacts help Boulé answer questions like: Why did oranges take root in California? What was the relationship with that other Los Angeles-area industry, the motion picture business? And how was orange juice invented?
In a phone interview, I asked Boulé -- a longtime L.A. as Subject member -- to elaborate on some of the themes he raises in his book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nathan Masters: Oranges grow in many other places around the world -- Florida comes to mind. So how did the fruit become so wrapped up in what you call the "dream of California?"
David Boulé: That's a great place to start. In the book I talk extensively about how the promise of California was recognized early on, particularly its potential to be an agricultural powerhouse. But how that promise would be realized was not clear at the beginning. Many crops were tried, wheat, grapes, and even some exotic plants; oranges were only one of the things it was thought might work here. Their ultimate success in California was the result of a number of factors.
It begins with William Wolfskill and his success in the 1840s with establishing the first commercial orange orchard in California, and his ability to sell oranges to San Francisco and the burgeoning market that was created by the California Gold Rush. This allowed him to expand because he'd found a new, larger market outside of selling to just the local area. His son built on that success by shipping the first carload of oranges east a decade or so later. It took several weeks for the oranges to arrive in St. Louis, but the fruit traveled well and was a sensation.
Second, there is California's climate -- Southern California's climate in particular -- along with the soil here that was ideal, once water was secured, for a whole host of different types of citrus, including many different types of oranges.
Then, there's the remarkable serendipity of the introduction of what became known as the Washington navel orange, which I talk about extensively in the book. In the early 1870s, a fellow at the Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. sent samples of a bud sport tree that was originally found in Brazil to both Florida and California. The trees sent to Florida promptly died. But the two that came to Riverside and were planted in Eliza Tibbet's front yard -- the legend says that she nurtured them with her dishwater -- those became successful, famous, and valuable. Every Washington navel tree in the world today is a direct, identical descendent of those two trees.
And, lastly, the California orange became world famous through the brilliant marketing of Sunkist.
NM: Almost all the state's citriculture has moved away from the Los Angeles area, though it still has a strong presence in places like the Central Valley. Is the orange still relevant to Southern California today?
DB: As you mentioned, there is still some very active citriculture in the San Joaquin Valley up against the Sierras. California still produces almost a hundred million cartons of navel oranges each year, and those oranges are shipped across the country and around the world. There is also active lemon growing in the Santa Paula area, and little pockets of other citrus production here and there in Southern California, but, no, the orange is no longer the economic dynamo or the recognized symbol of California's continuing promise. The land on which the thousands of acres of oranges were once grown became too valuable as real estate, as a place for people to live and to build factories, shopping centers and amusement parks.
NM: Probably my favorite page in your book shows that series of postcards made from the same master image but with more water and more oranges in each successive printing. Tell us a little about that series and how you discovered it.
DB: I have over 600 postcards dealing with the California citrus industry, and the overwhelming number of them are unique images. But early on I noticed some images were repeated, but that the image would look quite different from printing to printing, depending on how the retouchers had configured the oranges on the trees or changed the sky, clouds, and other details.
By the way, I'm glad you noticed that page because it does help to illustrate the critical importance of water to the growth of California's orange success. The more water that was brought to Southern California, the more abundant the citrus crop became. But, it also gave me a chance to show how images were often modified to enhance reality.
NM: Do images like these doctored postcards prompt skepticism on your part when looking through your collection?
DB: I wouldn't say skepticism. I have a career in marketing and public relations, so I understand that in that line of work it's about positioning and finding a positive part of a story to tell. I almost included in the book, but it didn't exactly fit, the quote from the John Ford movie, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." I think that's a lot of what that happened with citriculture and its promotion. After all, the trees were beautiful, the fruit gorgeous, and the orchards and homes and mountains picturesque.
NM: As a collector, you're limited to items that you can actually find -- and a lot of those items, or even the lack of items, might reflect biases of the past. The immigrant labor that made citriculture possible, for instance, wasn't well documented in the promotional literature and images of the day. How do you deal with those limitations as a collector?
DB: It's a very interesting question. When my collection turned from being a hobby, where I was just infatuated with the beauty of the orchards and the snow-capped mountains in the background, and I began to think about the story behind those images, I became aware that even though I had hundreds of images showing people working, virtually none showed people of color. As I discuss in the book, many of the people who got involved in citriculture in the early days were very passionate believers in the Progressive era thoughts of the time -- but those Progressive ideals didn't extend to people of other races, cultures, or religions.
So, while my book is about dreams and the positioning of growing the orange as romantic and a high-minded enterprise, I also wanted to tell about the people that did the hard work and played such an indispensable role in bringing citrus to market. I began a systematic search for images that would tell this aspect of the story. I was able to secure a very nice image from the Sunkist archive which shows Asian workers at a packing house. I found a lovely image of Latina packing workers on eBay. I have one shot in the book, which is the only image I've ever seen like this, showing workers from a whole group of ethnicities gathered together. It took a lot of sleuthing and hard work to find images that reflected what we know was reality in the orchards.
NM: How did you get into oranges? And when did you start collecting?
DB: I have a friend who is a graphic artist -- this was decades ago -- and he asked me to go to a paper ephemera show, something I'd never heard of. While he was busy looking for scrap for an illustration he was working, I entertained myself by walking through this huge hall with dozens of vendors selling of tens of thousands of pieces of paper. There were menus, matchbooks, postcards, receipts, almost anything you could imagine and all items that were never meant to survive. They were all very utilitarian in their initial purpose and completely disposable. But by happy happenstance they have survived, and there is now a market for them by researchers, graphic artists, and collectors. I came across a fellow who had one box of postcards labeled "California Citrus." I bought two cards, both different versions of the same scene: snow-capped mountains, a beautiful sky, manicured orchard, a beautiful house. I just loved the perfection of it all.
But I have the collector's gene and when I had two I wanted more. Soon I had five, then I had twenty, and then I was on a real mission. I wanted to see if I could find every single California citrus card that had been made. It was interesting to me that after years of doing this, while I'd see the same cards over and over again, and even some of the rarer cards I'd see here or there, every once in a while, if I kept going, I'd find one I'd never seen before.
I was amazed that a commercial enterprise, the growing of oranges for commerce, could produce over 600 unique images, and there was a market for all those postcards. Many of cards are versions those idealized images like those first cards I bought, but other cards show people up on ladders picking or working in a packing house. But all of them were of interest to people across the country.
NM: It's remarkable that in a collection like yours that documents a grand promotional campaign, most of the items aren't advertisements -- although you certainly do have some Sunkist ads -- but were things the public paid for.
DB: Yes, they were bought by visitors to California who sent them to their friends and relatives in the snowy, industrialized east. And the cards were saved by people -- they weren't discarded -- they obviously spoke to people's sense that there really was a place of beauty and health and abundance and potential.
NM: Publishing this book is a major milestone for you and your collection. What plans do you have for the collection in the future?
DB: [Laughs] I'm laughing a little because as I've mentioned I do have the collector's gene, and even though I consciously stopped collecting once I got involved in writing the manuscript, I am still tempted and sometimes slip back to looking online for images and other objects. It's still a subject that's very appealing to me.
But I also know that now that I've collected all of these items and made sense of them, organized them all in a certain fashion, and have used them to write a book, that I need to find a home or homes for them. It may not make sense for just one institution to take them; one institution may not be interested in all of the materials. But I would like for the materials to go somewhere where other people can have access to them for their own research and perhaps find additional connections or stories to tell.
NM: Let's end on a more frivolous question. What's your favorite way to eat an orange?
DB: [Laughs] Well, I think that's a good question, because after all, the orange is a food, and at one point in the book I do talk about that. I spend 274 pages talking about it as a symbol and a couple pages talking about it as something you can eat.
The orange is the perfect snack. It travels well. It comes in its own packaging. It's attractive. It's thirst-quenching. It's tasty. So my favorite way to eat an orange is to peel one, break it into wedges, and savor every one.
L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.