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California Dreaming: Ideology, Society, and Technology in the Citrus Industry of Palestine, 1890-1939

Author(s):Karlinsky, Nahum
Reviewer(s):Rhode, Paul

Published by EH.NET (November 2006)

Douglas Cazaux Sackman, Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005. xv + 386 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-520-23886-9.

Nahum Karlinsky, California Dreaming: Ideology, Society, and Technology in the Citrus Industry of Palestine, 1890-1939 (translated from Hebrew by Naftali Greenwood). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2005. xiv + 270 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7914-6527-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Paul Rhode, Department of Economics, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

In the summer of 1927, Frank Adams, a Professor of Irrigation at the University of California, joined a tour-group studying the agriculture of Palestine. One event receiving special note “was a California luncheon tendered the members of the Commission at the home of one of the settlers in the colony of Benjamin. The hosts were all former students of the University of California College of Agriculture … or those who have had some agricultural training and experience on California farms or … agricultural enterprises.”[1] This scientific inter-exchange lies at the intersection of these two valuable recent books exploring the growth of the citrus production in two distant, but environmentally similar lands.

Employing a cultural history approach, Sackman chronicles the rise of the California orange industry between 1870 and 1950. By his account, powerful regional boosters in southern California cultivated, or rather manufactured, an advertising image of a sunny “Garden of Eden” to better market their commodities and hide their exploitation of immigrant workers and their increasingly chemical-dependent production techniques. Across its first four chapters, Orange Empire sketches the founding myths of the local industry, covering the introduction of the Washington navel orange at the Tibbets farmstead, the conquest of blue mold by USDA pomologist G. Harold Powell, and the establishment of cooperative state-federal citrus research system.

But the heart of the work is the analysis of citrus marketing, especially of Sunkist’s advertising efforts, in Chapter 3, which bears the telling title “Pulp Fiction.” Sackman sees the Sunkist co-operative (p. 12) as the “driving force behind the rise of the Orange Empire.” Early attempts to promote California citrus appear lame, even a little bizarre. He observes that the state’s exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 displayed a model of the Liberty Bell made from oranges. The California Fruit Growers Exchange, formed in the same year, developed a more effective campaign of “scientific salesmanship” of oranges under the Sunkist label. Beginning with a 1907 promotional drive in Iowa using catch phrase “Oranges for Health-California for Wealth,” the cooperative became a leading national advertiser by the early 1920s. Among the bold claims in its magazine copy was that citrus was a good source of the newly-discovered Vitamin C — a claim that Sackman suspiciously notes was based on nutrition research partially funded by Sunkist. A sense of the tenor of the argument is offered on p. 115: “By using the legitimating stories of medical science and playing cultural fears of disease, Sunkist configured nature’s oranges as a vital ingredient for the health and growth of the nation.” Similar statements abound. The operation of advertising is indeed mysterious. Yet are tastes holding that fresh oranges are beautiful, delicious, and healthy (compared with other snacks) merely the product of Sunkist brain-washing? Despite his immersion in post-modern rhetoric, even the author does really appear to believe so (see p. xi). Maybe, sometimes, an orange is just an orange. And delicious at that.

Karlinsky adopts an approach more familiar to economic historians, one embracing the evaluation of evidence regarding production costs, export markets, technological choice, and the difficulties of cartelization. Like Sackman, he also emphasizes the play of ideology, specifically of conflicting visions within the Zionist movement, in shaping the development of the Jewish citrus industry in Palestine over the period from 1890 to 1939. One core ideological issue was whether the new sector was to develop along capitalist, private enterprise lines as advocated by pioneering grower, Moshe Smilansky, or along communal lines as advocated by Arthur Ruppin and Zionist socialists. A second, related set of issues involved nationalism and the use of hired labor. Should the citrus colonies rely on Jewish workers exclusively as the Ben-Gurion and Zionist Labor Movement demanded, or could cheaper Arab hired hands be employed? It is fascinating to compare the role and treatment of Mexican workers in the California citrus industry, which Sackman’s fourth chapter places in a new light, with intense debates raging at the same time in the Zionist movement over “the conquest of labor.” Another interesting point of comparison is the ideological position of cooperatives such as Sunkist. Sackman briefly (p. 93) notes that its founders declared themselves free “from commercial exploitation” by middlemen. But this understates how different cooperative members believed their community-based production and marketing organization was from the standard modes of operation of the family farms in the American Midwest. California agriculture offered something new, although not as radically different as some desired.

Karlinsky’s title, California Dreaming: Ideology, Society, and Technology in the Citrus Industry of Palestine, is evocative but a little misleading. The Hebrew version of the book was called Citrus Blossoms: Jewish Entrepreneurship in Palestine, 1890-1939. One imagines that in bringing out an English translation (and a good one at that), the editors at the SUNY Press decided a slight repackaging would increase the work’s American market. Karlinsky discusses the “California model” in excellent detail, but only beginning in Chapter 5 on production techniques and in Chapter 9 on marketing. (The phrase “California model” was commonly used in the industry to characterize the agricultural and marketing practices propelling California to global leadership. The term was explicitly adopted by Harold Powell, Jr. when he moved to South Africa with a mission to reproduce California’s success there in the 1910s.)

A major point of the fifth chapter is that while Jewish leaders admired California’s achievement and studied its techniques regarding the use of hired labor, plant spacing, cultivation, irrigation, picking and packing, and joint marketing, the industry in Palestine did not actually adopt many of these practices on a sustained basis. As one example, by the 1920s, California citrus farmers were irrigating with electric-driven horizontal centrifugal pumps and underground cement tubes. Despite expert advice to adopt the “California irrigation method,” Jewish planters persisted in using piston pumps driven by internal combustion engines and in manual irrigating via ditches. As another example, during the “big planting period” of the early 1930s, Jewish farmers abandoned the wide spacing advocated by California’s citrus experts in favor of tighter spacing and earlier maturation. Karlinsky concludes (p. 120) the “attempt to transplant the California model to Palestine … did not turn out well, mainly due to differences in conditions: scarcity of land, availability of cheap unskilled labor, high interest rates, and the wish to obtain a return on equity as quickly as possible.”

The situation was similar in packing and marketing. Attempts in the early 1920s to install an efficient, large-scale, American-style packing plant failed miserably. The machinery was designed for the round American oranges, not for the oval Shamouti variety grown in Palestine. Growers, moreover, were initially suspicious of the drive towards centralization they considered inherent in the modern techniques. Finally, efforts to form marketing cooperatives, including the Padress and the Jaffa Citrus Exchange, went through repeated trials and efforts at reorganization.

Given his interests and sources, Karlinsky is relatively silent on the growth of the Arab side of the Palestinian citrus industry. Chapter 6 provides a short overview of technological innovations in that sector. This brevity is unfortunate because except for the 1926-35 period, when Jewish planting outpaced Arab planting before falling back again, the two sectors were of roughly equal size and shared many of the same patterns of expansion and crisis. The Arab sector predated Jewish efforts and tended to be more traditional. But it also grew rapidly during the Mandate era, using lower production costs to compete in export markets. One of the hypotheses advanced in the text is that capital from Jewish land purchases as well as lessons about modern techniques learned by Arabs working in Jewish orchards pushed the expansion of the Arab sector. As Karlinsky explicitly states, a definite comprehensive study of the Arab half of the Palestinian citrus industry awaits another treatment.

As with the English-language title of Karlinsky’s book, Orange Empire does not fully convey the contents of the Sackman’s work. The scope of this book — which (p. xii) asserts it is the first historical monograph on the California citrus industry written since Carey McWilliams’s 1946 Southern California — is both larger and smaller than is suggested. Orange Empire visits all of the “stations of the cross” in the McWilliams version of California’s agricultural history — the 1913 riot at the Durst ranch in Wheatland, the 1934 EPIC campaign of Upton Sinclair, the strike-breaking activities of the Associated Farmers during the 1930s, the controversies surrounding John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and the story behind Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph of the “Migrant mother.” Little matter that Durst produced hops; that Lange’s mother picked peas, not oranges; or that Charles Teague, the book’s key opponent of EPIC and proponent of the Associated Farmers, was a lemon (and walnut) producer. Using care to distinguish between California oranges and lemons is important because the producers of the latter continued to be much more dependent on tariff protection to stave off European competition than producers of the former.

The cost of this broad take on the subject matter is that Sackman pays limited attention to many issues of interest to economic historians. The economic literature has focused on whether the cooperatives such as Sunkist were strictly rent-extracting output-restricting cartels or whether they increased efficiency by lowering costs and solving marketing problems. In either case, how did such organizations solve the “free rider” problem to retain members and market position? The advertising of Sunkist was costly and inevitably some of the increased demand would spill over to non-Sunkist citrus. How were outsiders prevented from reaping what they did not sow? Advertising and branding might also provide informative signals about quality to consumers concerned about purchasing spoilt or dry and pulpy fruit. Sackman’s treatment leaves these issues largely unexplored. Although focused on Palestine, Karlinsky’s work does a far better job discussing the challenges of running a cartel. Sackman’s book is also silent on tariff policy and global trade, providing no indication of the role of protectionism in building California’s Orange Empire. Finally and most unfortunately, the book’s last chapter devotes just a few pages to the Empire’s fall, to its disappearance from Southern California in the post-War period as a result of suburbanization, smog, and the open land of the San Joaquin Valley. That is a story bearing a fresh telling.

Note:

1. Frank Adams, “Agriculture in Palestine,” California Countryman (Jan. 1928), p. 21.

Paul Rhode is the author (with Jos? Morilla Critz and Alan L. Olmstead) of “‘Horn of Plenty': The Globalization of Mediterranean Horticulture and the Economic Development of Southern Europe, 1880-1930,” Journal of Economic History (1999). Beginning in January 2007, he will join the Department of Economics at the University of Arizona.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII