I first read about this program in Brkt‘s issue on farming, in a short essay illustrated with this intriguing but unsourced image.
- Farm to table produce available through the mail in the ‘teens
As I’ve been reading the histories of community gardens, I’ve often been surprised when notions that seem hard-wired to post-millennial ways of knowing, mapping, and circulating in cities actually have much longer histories. Stories about food trucks in LA, for example, have clustered around discussions of Los Angeles as a lateral city, one where people drive between far-flung points to get food that they were informed about through the data points of iPhone apps and Twitter. (Of course, there is a separate but parallel story of gentrification, loncheros and Latin street food that makes structure of the discussion seem rather like the divided city in China Miéville’s The City and the City.)
So I was surprised to learn of the US Postal Service’s 1918 “farm to table program.” This scheme coincided with the beginnings of the Victory Garden program that was intended to stave off food shortages in the cities during wartime. It’s also an interesting glimpse into the beginnings of mail delivery in the US, which first became possible by motor vehicle in the late nineteen-teens, and was a big boon to marketing the postal service. If I remember my meat-packing history correctly, it was also the time that the refrigerated railroad car went on line, so to speak, enabling the systems of distribution that underwrite “big meat” and the lives of the characters in The Jungle. Here, the postmaster general, James I. Blakslee, explains the advantages of the government tie-in:
New York Times, April 14, 1918
The piles of puffy lettuce reminded me a bit of Japan’s postal service, where you can ship anything, including a tall stack of Fukuzawas, for a small fee. Press coverage, at the time, is pretty ecstatic about countering the diffusionist drain of information from the cities–magazines and newspapers sent to rural areas–with the blowback of fresh produce.
You can read the entire NYT article here. The robust confidence in the post office’s profits is also an interesting contrast to the wan expectations of today, and complicates the general “the Internet killed the USPS” sentiment. The more I read about food networks in the US, the more they seem to wend back to the nineteen-teens, and even the LA-centric stories seem connected to other and earlier imaginaries…