Reynoldsburg is a small Midwestern town fifteen miles due east of Columbus, Ohio. If you pass through town on Hwy 40 and continue east for another three miles you will come upon an intersecting road, Graham, that runs North-South. Turn right (south) onto Graham Road go about a mile. On the left hand side of the road you will see a period wood house with red clapboard siding and white window trim. You’ve arrived at 1792 Graham Road the former home of A. S. Livingston (1821-1898) and ground zero for modern American tomatoes.
Tomatoes originated in South America where their culinary use can be traced to the 8th century. New World explorers introduced them into Europe in the 16th century but early tomato strains were principally viewed as garden curiosities. The culinary use of tomatoes by Europeans was slowed by a fear that they might be harmful coupled with their novelty as a culinary ingredient. Nonetheless tomatoes were accepted in some parts of Europe, particularly Italy and Spain, by the 1700s.
Tomato culture in the United States started in the late 1700s but as in the case of Europe their acceptance as a garden vegetable was slow. Thomas Jefferson’s garden journal noted that he grew tomatoes in 1781 but he made no mention of them as a food. The slow uptake of tomatoes as a culinary item is likely to have partial explanation in the plants themselves. Descriptions of these early American tomatoes highlight numerous differences to our modern tomatoes. Their foliage was sparse and the fruits were irregularly shaped, often hollow and tended to have a bitter taste. While not conclusive, the descriptions of tomatoes from the 1700s suggest that very little selection work had been done and that their characteristics were close to those of wild tomatoes
Alexander Livingston enters the picture in the mid-1800s. He was a seedsman in the early mold of other businessman/farmers who were inventing commercial scale seed production. Livingston’s interest in tomatoes began as a hobby. He used hybridization as a means to improve and stabilize its genetics but these early efforts failed. He next tried a simpler technique of selection. He grew out stands of tomatoes, selecting out the plants with improved production and fruit appeal. He then replanted selected seed multiple times making sub-selections each season. Within a five to ten year period his technique resulted in a stable variety with substantial improvements in production, fruit characteristics and taste. In a burst of salesman-like modesty he called his creation “Paragon.”
Paragon tomatoes were introduced into the commercial market in 1870. They were a lip-smacking hit. Livingston went on to develop over thirty tomato varieties over the next three decades, each with short catchy names. Examples include Acme, Perfection, Magnus, Beauty, Golden Queen, Honor Bright and so forth. Most of these Livingston strains are now extinct but tomato experts at the USDA have estimated that the majority of all currently grown tomatoes have origins than can be traced to the Livingston collection.
The two Livingston varieties that I have grown this year include Paragon, 1870 and Magnus, 1900. They differ in a number of respects. Paragon has “tomato leaf” foliage; medium sized oblate red fruit with good acid balance. Magnus has “potato leaf” foliage; medium sized oblate pink fruit that have a high solids content and a taste profile that Livingston’s catalog described as “equal to any.”
These tomatoes were grown organically in my garden in the Valley of the Moon.