The Invention of Peaches and Pimentos

The peach, in the form that Americans know it, was invented in 1875, in the state of Georgia, by Samuel Rumph. Until then, something called a “peach” existed, but it was barely a commercial product, because it couldn’t be shipped. But after years of tinkering and cross-breeding with fruit that no one much wanted, Rumph developed the Elberta peach (named after his wife) in 1875. Cynthia R. Greenlee tells the story in “Reinventing the Peach, the Pimento, and Regional Identity” (Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2022). She writes:

Just how Rumph begat this new peach is uncertain. It was succulent and bright yellow with red markings. Its pit came out easily, and its fruit matured early in the season. That timing and its firmness were boons, and the trees yielded their large, handsome fruit prolifically. As historian Thomas Okie wrote in his rigorous and compelling study of how the peach became a Georgia icon, Rumph had produced the “industrial peach,” a reliable producer that was reasonably good to eat, relatively resistant to pests and diseases, amenable to growing in different climes and soil, and easily transportable. 

As a pioneer of what would eventually become agribusiness, Rumph considered the whole peach, from grafting to delivery, and intervened at various stages in the supply chain. First, he bred the peach that took the world by storm. Then, as a member of the Georgia State Horticultural Society’s committee on packing and shipping peaches, Rumph devoted himself to studying how to send peaches around the country. Although the first shipment of peaches to New York had happened around the time of Rumph’s birth in the 1850s, shipping still bedeviled the peach grower. Picked too green, they lost flavor when refrigerated. Too ripe, and they rotted almost immediately after emerging from cold shipment.

It wasn’t long before Rumph reported making a successful shipment of peaches to New York, offering proof of concept that Georgia peaches could ride the railways well and sell high, even though it was an arduous journey for the fruit: usually three days total of trains and transfer to steamers. In an effort to make shipping a precise science rather than a gamble, Rumph created a slatted crate that could be stacked and wheeled, founding the Elberta Crate Company. His unpatented invention spawned industrywide imitation, and he went on to invent a refrigerated railway car—also unpatented—that was widely used by fruit growers thereafter.  Rumph’s industry-changing shipping inventions established a durable and productive connection between fruit growers, the state, and industry. Railroads were booming across the South, buoyed by ample northern investment. And peach growers’ earnings—and nurserymen’s active involvement in politics—determined where railroads would go and stop. 

As Greenlee points out, the arrival of the peach altered the economic position and public view of Georgia. It wasn’t long before the same infrastructure of agricultural development and processing started by the peach led to crops of melons, berries and other fruits and vegetables. Georgia boasted that it was a place where both apples and oranges could grow–a pointed jab at northern orchards. The crops and best-practice growing technologies were spread by agricultural extension services.

Greenlee tells the story of another Georgia agricultural family, Samuel Riegel and his sons, who were to the pimento what Rumph was to the peach. In 1905, the family became obsessed with growing peppers. They got their US Congressman to obtain seeds from Europe, which the bred and cross-bred, and by 1911 they were distributing pimento seeds. Again, a chain of complementary innovations was important, and here one of Riegel’s sons took the lead:

Still, a particularly vexing wrinkle marred Perfection’s flawlessness, one common to all pimentos: thick, hard-to-process skin. It had to be softened with lye or burned off in a fire, then peeled by hand.  The other Riegel son, Mark, who worked briefly for the experiment station, thought there had to be a better way. He invented a roasting machine that ferried peppers on a continuous chain through a line of fire, turning the skin burnoff into a quicker mass process. Like Rumph before him, he attended to the supply chain end to end. Not only did Mark Riegel invent a process, he established a string of canneries that induced growers to cultivate peppers on contract. From the seed to the jar, the Riegels had cultivated the “perfect” pimento, enlisted farmers to grow their marvel, developed a better processing method, and created upbeat marketing campaigns with their Sunshine brand.

The overall lesson here is that a successful innovation is a multifaceted process. It often involves individuals willing to take the risks of experimentation and research, but those individuals often have a better chance if they are supported by an invisible infrastructure of science and shared information. The ultimate success depends not just on the product itself, but also on complementary innovations: processing, packaging, transportation. Success also depends on nurturing demand for the new product, often via marketing and publicity efforts. Finally, when these general ingredients are in place, one successful innovation can light the way to others.