“Oranges for Health! California for Wealth!” — Sunkist

Every piece of California’s quilted landscape comes with a food cultivation story, from abalone and almonds to asparagus and artichokes. In Southern California, citrus was the name of the game. Not just oranges, but lemons and grapefruits and limes as well. The cultivation and harvest of ‘orange gold’ made a splash that spurred growth and development in a time when houses and roads were far between. I recall my grandfather sharing the story of his first drive west into California when he came over a rise and saw a vast veranda of grove-topped hills sprawling in every direction. A far cry from today’s Los Angeles hill coverings.

Orange County historian Phil Brigandi, in his book A Brief History of Orange, California: The Plaza City, describes “King Citrus and Queen Valencia” as forming the backbone of Orange’s economy for over half a century, with orange trees “stretching for miles in neat, orderly rows, divided by windbreaks of eucalyptus trees, and dotted with country homes.” Phil also notes that contrary to common assumption, the city of Orange didn’t actually draw its name from the acres of scurvy staving fruit, since the city was named prior to the industry taking hold of the area, but rather got its moniker as a marketing ploy to entice settlement—pure and simple.

In her book, Tustin As It Once Was, Juanita Lovret recalls how generations of Tustin youth found their first summer jobs with the local citrus packing houses—picking, hauling, packing, and marketing. The pay was paltry by today’s standards “one dollar per hour for drivers and seventy-five cents per hour for swampers,” but in the 1940s, those hot summers hefting citrus crates and jockeying trucks loaded with fruit paid for any number of “movie dates, dances at Balboa’s Rendezvous, cars, gas and, in some cases, college.”

Like the Tustin packing houses, the history of Sunkist, one of the most widely recognized citrus businesses, is tied to Southern California citrus groves. The century old supplier was instrumental in marketing citrus and the myth of the west with slogans like “Oranges for Health! California for Wealth!”

If you’ve visited the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, you may have stepped into the refrigerator car that displays a colorful medley of fruit crate art. In addition to splashy slogans, those crates of carefully wrapped fruit were also adorned with pastoral landscapes and lovely ladies who promised health and a slice of paradise in a bite of fruit. Ultimately, the citrus labels that prettified the sturdy, railroad ready crates acted as an advertisement for the West, beckoning migration to California.

The tangy zest of citrus is still infused in the fabric of California culture. These days, I pick up a bag of oranges each week and fix a glass of fresh squeezed, pulp induced juice for the morning, but if you’re looking for a little more excitement check out Russ Parson’s fabulous suggestions for citrus goodness in the LA Times article “The California Cook: Getting Creative with Citrus.”

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of Southern California’s citrus cities, check out these History Press titles:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would also highly recommend the Smithsonian Magazine blog Design Decoded, which features a six-part citrus series.

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