Abstract: Flowers, Fruits, and Furs: Marketing Luxury in California Farming, 1890-1990

Jeff Charles


As U.S. agriculture as a whole moved toward consolidation, incorporation, and standardization in the twentieth century, a number of smaller farmers, especially in California, turned to unusual or exotic products that had associations with a luxury or an upscale market. These farmers, whose numbers notably included women as well as men, were attracted to the production of exotic fruits, flowers, and for a brief period, fur-bearing animals, partly because they could be cultivated on a small scale and yet still marketed at prices that would turn a profit, and partly, as well, because the cachet of these products made them intrinsically appealing in an urbanized, consumer-dominated society. This paper presents four vignettes from a hundred years of California agriculture's interaction with the consumer market—involving pampas grass, chinchillas, poinsettias, and kiwifruit—all of which had a vogue as fashionable commodities. Of course, none of these products was essential to American households, and thus farmers and their agents attempted to construct markets based on the products' prestige associations, with decidedly mixed success. This paper argues, however, that even products that failed to sell helped increase the range of fruits, flowers, and produce available to the nation, and helped lay the groundwork for the late twentieth-century efflorescence of prestige farming in California and elsewhere.