Tomato Club Canning Equipment, Early 20th Century

Canning equipment used to can tomatoes.

The canning equipment shown above was used by the Tomato Club at Mississippi Normal College (later known as the University of Southern Mississippi ). The photograph below shows the club at work in 1914. In addition to growing three acres of tomatoes and canning the produce, the club members served their tomatoes in the college dining hall. The first two college presidents, W. H. Smith and Joseph Anderson Cook, were great advocates of these efforts.

Members of the Tomato Club at Mississippi Normal College under a roof canning tomatoes. Early university buildings are in the background.

In the early 20th century, the government sought to improve agricultural practices and farm life, based on the newest scientific information. Those involved in these efforts quickly realized that two of the biggest obstacles to implementing new practices were the tendency for each generation to do things the way they'd seen them done in the past and the resistance to “outsiders” dictating how things should be done. In his pioneering farm demonstration work for the United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) in Texas, Seaman A. Knapp overcame these obstacles by providing incentives to recruit community participants, whose success then encouraged neighboring farmers to adapt their own practices. By 1905, his methods had spread to several other states, including Mississippi .

By 1910, there was a boys' club division of Farm Demonstration Work, headed by Oscar B. Martin; he quickly proposed the idea of tomato clubs for girls. The establishment of tomato clubs for girls and corn clubs for boys taught new practices to the younger generation. Competitions provided the young people with incentives, and their successes were difficult for the elder generations to ignore.

In the case of the girls' clubs, several farm endeavors were considered before the growing and canning of tomatoes was selected as the focus. Tomatoes were easily grown, could be processed in the home kitchen, and were a good source of nutrition. Home canning of produce was not common in the early 1900s, but canned tomatoes would provide a good source of food for the winter and potential income from the sale of any excess. In addition, home demonstration agents (also known as “canning agents”) could model efficient kitchen practices while giving instruction in the art and science of canning.

Tomato clubs reached Mississippi in 1911, when Knapp appointed Susie V. Powell to take on the task of organizing these activities for girls there. Powell had already had significant impact on the improvement of Mississippi schools. The club work was not immediately supported by government funding, but Powell was able to mobilize community leaders and women's organizations to support it. Mississippi tomato club girls measured their plots, planted seeds, harvested tomatoes, canned the produce, and then competed for prizes by exhibiting these products at local and regional fairs.

Eventually, tomato club work obtained support from the Mississippi legislature, and by 1913, these activities were absorbed into the blossoming 4-H movement. Participants learned improved methods of food cultivation and preparation, as well as business methods, marketing skills, and leadership skills. The girls were able to use profits and prize money to advance their educational opportunities. Educational opportunities for the preceding generations were also expanded as women showed an interest in home demonstrations and organizing clubs as well.

To view the items featured in this exhibition, please visit the 3rd floor of McCain Library & Archives. The canning equipment can be found in the Joseph Anderson Cook Collection (M209) and the photograph of the ladies canning can be found in the University Archives (PC224) or in the Hattiesburg Historical Photographs Collection (M246, photo number -154). To see more Items of the Month, click here.

For more information about “Tomato Clubs”:

Moore, Danny. “To Make the Best Better: The Establishment of Girls' Tomato Clubs in Mississippi , 1911-1915. The Journal of Mississippi History 63 (no. 2, Summer 2001).(Cook or McCain Library F336 .J68 Vol. 63 2001)

Scott, Roy V. The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914. Chicago : University of Illinois Press, 1970. (Cook or McCain Library S545 .S26)

Wessel, Thomas and Marilyn. 4-H: An American Idea, 1900-1980. Chevy Chase , Maryland : National 4-H Council, 1982. (Cook S533 .F66 W45 1982)

For more information about the history of the University of Southern Mississippi :

Hickman, Alma. Southern as I Saw It. Hattiesburg : University of Southern Mississippi Press, 1966. (Cook, McCain, or Gulf Coast LD3425 .H5)

Morgan, Chester M. Dearly Bought, Deeply Treasured. Jackson : The University Press of Mississippi , 1987. (Cook or McCain Library LD3425 .M67 1987)

Text by Diane Ross, Curator of Manuscripts, Archives, and Digital Collections