The Tomato Identity Crisis!


In 1893 the United States was in an economic downturn. Prices of goods and stocks fell steadily. Banks were struggling and railroad construction slowed to a crawl. Unemployment rose and as more and more people lost their jobs a panic, like a dense fog, settled over the country. President Arthur signed The Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 that reduced taxes on some things while increasing them on others. Critics began to call this “the mongrel tariff.”

For example, Edward L. Hedden, collector of the port of New York, enforced duties on tomatoes according to Schedule G. Provisions of the Tariff Act which taxed “vegetables in their natural state.” John, George, and Frank Nix filed suit against Hedden to recover back taxes they paid him under protest. They argued that tomatoes were fruits and therefore exempt from this tax. In Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304, the highest court in the land would decide if a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable! No, this isn’t a joke!

Both plaintiffs’ counsel and the defendant’s counsel used various dictionary definitions to prove their side. The plaintiff’s attorney read the definition of the word ‘fruit’ from several dictionaries and called two witnesses who had sold produce for 30 years. Justice Horace Gray even admitted that a botanist would classify a tomato as a fruit because it contains seeds. Therefore, a tomato is actually a fruit. Case closed, right? Not so fast.
Justice Gray wrote the opinion of the court. In essence “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas.” However, the key argument was not whether a botanist or a dictionary would define a tomato as a fruit but would the general public do the same? Gray concluded, “These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.” Therefore, even though technically a fruit, tomatoes could be taxed as vegetables according to the highest court in the land because the common understanding of the people was that a tomato was a vegetable.

I have to admit that when I think of fruits I picture oranges, pineapples, mangos, tangerines, etc. A tomato can’t be a fruit, can it? I don’t ever remember ordering a tomato smoothie or a tomato flavored yogurt. The truth is that a tomato is a fruit as are peas and beans. However in a unanimous decision in May 1893, our United States Supreme Court ruled that for the purposes of this tariff, a tomato was a vegetable because the people said so.

See: Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893)


About John W. Davis III

I am passionate about legal research, legal librarianship and scholarship, Intellectual Property, U.S. History, fine art, reading, and most sports. I have over 9 years of research and library experience and a unique history that has taken me from running my own fine art business to meeting Associate Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2015 by in History and tagged , , , , , , .

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