Meet the ‘Blueberry Queen’: The woman who ‘invented’ blueberries

Blueberries are a delicious summer treat. But wait, how did these blueberries get to your fridge? To understand this, let’s understand the story of Elizabeth Coleman White—otherwise known as the “Blueberry Queen.” Before White, blueberries were only a wild crop. Though there were many attempts to grow blueberries on a farm-like setting, all of these…
July 14, 2016

Blueberries are a delicious summer treat. But wait, how did these blueberries get to your fridge?

To understand this, let’s understand the story of Elizabeth Coleman White—otherwise known as the “Blueberry Queen.”

Before White, blueberries were only a wild crop. Though there were many attempts to grow blueberries on a farm-like setting, all of these attempts were unsuccessful.

The first commercial blueberry harvest was in 1916—100 years ago. This harvest was on Whitesbog, a giant berry bog owned by J.J. White, called the “King of Cranberries.” His daughter was Elizabeth.

In 1910, Elizabeth found a USDA publication that struck her interest, which was titled “Experiments in Blueberry Culture.” She decided the write to the scientist behind this pamphlet, Dr. Fredrick Coville, writing:

“Dear Sir: I recently received from Washington, the report on ‘Experiments in Blueberry Culture,’ which I have read with great interest, and I write to make a suggestion in regard to future experiments. My father, Joseph J. White, is one of the largest cranberry growers in the country, and on his property are considerable areas of land too high for cranberries, but admirably suited to blueberries, judging by the way the wild ones flourish. Very respectfully yours, Miss Elizabeth C. White”

Dr. Coville was a botanist who had spent four years studying blueberries and writing almost 200 papers on blueberry cultivation. He decided to work with Elizabeth to cultivate blueberries, and they needed the help of an often-scorned group of people: the “pinies.” These were the poor and uneducated people who lived in the New Jersey woods. It wouldn’t be expected that a wealthy woman like Elizabeth or an esteemed scientist like Dr. Coville would interact with these people.

Elizabeth paid the pinies $1 for each blueberry bush they found, which was more than a day’s work worth of money. She had them mark the bluest and best berries, then Dr. Coville would breed the blueberries together. Their exchanges were central to this project.

Elizabeth later wrote that “they [the pinies] contributed one essential part, Coville contributed central part, my father and I contributed another essential part. Without the cooperation of all 3, this work would not have been possible.”

Consider that it took thousands of years to domesticate the apple, but less than a decade to domesticate the blueberry! This is one example of the blueberry coverage.

But the new developments would have been pointless without good marketing efforts, which Elizabeth mastered. She decided to wrap the new berries in cellophane, which she had seen as an appetizing technique used to sell chocolates. Blueberry fields across this area of the United States sprouted up, because she sold trimmings of blueberry bushes across the county. Blueberries were an immediate hit among growers, because they grew during a typical “off-season” and in acidic soil.

But this success was not without controversy. Child labor was an extremely controversial issue at this time, like debates about immigration of gun control nowadays. And Elizabeth was right in the center of this issue.

In 1913, Good Housekeeping published an inflammatory article titled “Who Picked Your Cranberries?” This article talked about the hardships that child laborers faced. This article said,

“In the state of new Jersey, between one thousand and fifteen hundred little children are worked like purchased slaves…. helping harvest this cranberry crop…The children, from 3-14 years of age or thereabouts, are driven with curses, urged with blows, and forced to live in condition that would shame a dog-breeder if he kenneled his animals in a place approximately as bad.”

interior of berry picker's house

Berry growers often lived in conditions like this.

The article called out Whitesbog, the bog that Elizabeth ran, specifically.

“The bogs of Mr. Joseph J. White… are considered to be the best in the state, so far as conditions of operation are concerned. This may be because they are under the supervision of his daughter. Here the housing is as perfect as it can be under the condition that requires the employment.”

Elizabeth responded publicly to attacks that she mistreated workers. For example, she wrote:

“That these efforts were ‘false or exaggerated in the light of my experience, [publishing]…a grossly exaggerated picture of the evil in hopes of arousing public.’

She also defended the bog laborers, writing that

“These Italian cranberry pickers have an outing in the country and go home with many times as much money in their pockets as when they came. The good, steady-working (Italian) mother who can speak no English, and can never hope for work that pays much better; and I see what fine young women her daughters have become, speaking English easily. The children have the freedom of out-of-doors and the proud consciousness of earning their own school clothes. They come in close association with English-speaking Americans and both sides lose their prejudices. The children learn industry and thrift, drop the scabs of  the… disease they brought from the city and grow rosy and plump. These and many other things like them I see year after year, and know that employment on the cranberry bogs, in spite of its occasional hardships, has furnished to many field-working Italian peasants a valuable stepping-stone, broken and imperfect though it may be, in their struggle upward into the more perfect American citizenship;, and by which they can earn much more than at most other work available for the newcomer who speaks no English, and at the same time enables them to give their children the advantages of the better schools in the city the greater portion of the term… If we can reconcile the fact that Nature’s chosen season of ripening the fruit clashes with man’s chosen time of starting children to school, make these picking seasons simply ideal outings for thousands of poor but self-respecting city people.”

The story of a woman growing blueberries may not seem revolutionary. But Elizabeth Coleman White’s story certainly demonstrated these characteristics. She explored science by using then state-of-the-art technologies to create a new, unimagined product—the domesticated blueberry.

Elizabeth touched the lives of many diverse people, including immigrant fruit pickers and poverty-stricken rural citizens. It was extraordinary that a rich businesswoman would promote immigrants’ rights, or work hand-in-hand with poor, rural Americans.

By introducing a new crop to the world market, Elizabeth pioneered a novel exchange. Before her work, blueberries were only a wild crop that picnicking children snacked on. A blueberry isn’t quite like a voyage to the New World, but Elizabeth certainly explored science, encountered a wide variety of people and societal hurdles, and altered American exchange.

A list of sources you can use to learn more about Elizabeth Coleman White can be found here.