Book Notes: Apples and Orchards since the 18th Century, by Joanna Crosby

Apples and Orchards Since the 18th Century – Material Innovation and Cultural Tradition, by Joanna Crosby, Bloomsbury (2023)

Apples and Orchards Since the 18th Century – Material Innovation and Cultural Tradition, by art historian and community orchardist Joanna Crosby, is a book of two closely and skillfully interwoven themes.

The first theme is the way in which the technology-driven development of fruit growing techniques, from the industrial revolution to the early twentieth century, resulted in a rapid and hugely significant expansion in orchards, which eventually gave way to a sadly inevitable decline in the wake of the post-WWII shift to ever-greater food productivity and efficiency at all costs. Joanna Crosby explains how those technological innovations and agricultural improvements enabled orchards to be transformed from small-scale plots producing enough fruit for the needs of individual estates and farms, to the much larger, industrial-scale plantations of fruit crops destined for sale not only to individuals and households via market stalls and street corner costermongers, but also to jam-making and fruit-canning factories, via mass railway shipments. Crosby also talks about the impact that these changes had on society, from the macro-scale assessment of the economic value of apples as a bulk crop, to the effect on individuals who grew, sold and profited from apples.

The second theme is the way in which the cultural, artistic and symbolic significance of the apple and the orchard during the same time period – despite the industrialisation of fruit growing methods – remained consistently bucolic, nostalgic and moralistic in both visual representation and underlying message, right up until the widespread societal and cultural changes of the post-WWII era encouraged new ways of looking at and thinking about an old favourite fruit.

Here Crosby explores the strangely static nature of the apple in art and design of the time, which was characterised by a consistent and deliberate association of the fruit with classical and biblical themes: the golden apples of the Hesperides, the judgement of Paris that sparked the Trojan War, and of course, the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In addition to and complementing this dogged identification of the apple with morality tales and religious themes, artistic representations of wider orchard spaces also retained and displayed the mystical, glamourous aspects of a Lost Eden or the wild glades of Greek myth.

The emphasis on these elements in the work of many artists, particularly in the late- and post-industrial revolution Victorian era, is explained by Crosby as an expression of a nostalgic longing, and a seeking for a lost, semi-mythical rural idyll that was quite apart and aloof from the realities of agricultural labour and food production, with fruit-growing spaces transformed into carefully controlled, synthetic compound drenched rows of scientifically planned and managed, monoculture trees.

Crosby also shows that the search for a lost paradise continues to the modern day, identifying the Community Orchard movement as a key expression of our ongoing desire to restore and preserve the perceived ideals and values of a bygone era in the form of traditional orchard spaces, calling it:

“[a] twentieth-century concept that looks back to an undefined, yet recognizable era when the orchard was a valued place in the network of rural communities.”

As a community orchardist by calling, the author is surely in favour of the concept, and equally must surely also be more aware than most that the collection-based orchards we’re seeking to emulate probably didn’t exist outside of the gated and walled estates of the landed gentry. The irony is that the wider community back in the day would have been excluded from such spaces; the beauty is that they are now being opened to everyone in the community, everyone in the community is invited and welcomed in. Perhaps this is, too, is an expression of a much sought-after, morally-uplifting ideal?

Given the incredibly broad scope of the book’s subject matter, the result is a necessarily whistle-stop – but nonetheless completely fascinating – tour of numerous and diverse aspects of the subject matter. Along the way we’re treated to chapters on everything from the definition of an orchard or orchard space, through the story of the development of fruit growing from individual farm to industrial plantation scale, the influence of Victorian pomologists and their works, the role of costermongers in London and societal attitudes towards the women who sold apples on the street, the international trade in apples, the use of apples in the kitchen and cider making, the symbolism of the apple in art and iconic imagery, and finishing with a look at our modern-day love affair with heritage fruit trees and its expression in the creation of the aforementioned community orchards run by local enthusiasts rather than agricultural conglomerates. Crosby doesn’t have the luxury of delving deeply into individual seams of information, and so each is briefly and succinctly addressed and assessed within the context of the essential interplay of the book’s two major themes.

All in all, this is a fascinating work that encompasses a great swathe of orchard history, shining a light onto individual subject areas just long enough to pique our interest and present the essential story, before moving along to the next source, the next concept, the next detail, the next potential jumping-off point for further exploration. It’s the textual equivalent of a well-stocked Apple Day display: a tableful of content laid out and organised into a wide selection of apple-themed subjects and concepts, each of which could spark an entire series of research projects, blog posts and further books. Indeed, one hope that the author expresses is that the book will encourage exactly that: a deeper dive into some of the much-neglected sub-topics included, any of which are thoroughly deserving of further study and elucidation.

I highly recommend Apples and Orchards Since the 18th Century to anyone who is interested in the story of orchards and fruit growing, or the significance of the apple as a cultural symbol and artistic icon. I urge you to seek out a copy, if you can either borrow or afford to buy one. I say the latter because – to acknowledge the elephant in the room – the r.r.p. of the book is £85.00 – or, at time of writing, £76.50 for hardback and £61.20 for ebook via the publisher’s website. Given the high cover price, your best bet might be to enquire at your local library, to see if they can obtain a copy via an inter-library loan.

I do hope that the current price-tag will be greatly reduced as and when a paperback edition of the book appears, which would allow access to this superb work to the much larger potential customer-base that surely exists beyond the academic library market. I worked in book publishing for a number of years, so I fully understand that this is an academic work – the author’s PhD thesis, if I’m not mistaken – published by an academic imprint, and so of course the hardback print run will be necessarily limited and the cover price will reflect the publisher’s need to recoup the cost of printing. But I also think there are going to be a great many potential readers out there who simply won’t be able to afford a copy of the book at the original price, and perhaps won’t be able to access it via a library, and will therefore miss out. Which would be a real shame, as this excellent book really does deserve to reach as wide an audience as possible.


Apples and Orchards Since the 18th Century – Material Innovation and Cultural Tradition by Joanna Crosby is published by Bloomsbury, (r.r.p. £85.00). You can order a copy direct from the publisher, via Amazon.co.uk (Affiliate Link)1If you buy a copy of the book via this affiliate link, I’ll earn a small referral fee, which I promise to put towards buying more orchard-related books. and it should also be available from a number of independent high street and/or online booksellers.

My thanks to Bloomsbury for sending me a pdf review copy of the book.

If you’d like to know more about the book and the author, have a listen to the 5th January 2024 episode of Dr. Neil Buttery’s British Food History Podcast: ‘Apples and Orchards with Joanna Crosby‘.


Footnotes

  • 1
    If you buy a copy of the book via this affiliate link, I’ll earn a small referral fee, which I promise to put towards buying more orchard-related books.

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