Creating an 1890s orchard in a museum

America on the Move has been open to the public since 2003 and remains one of the museum's most popular exhibitions, particularly for families with kids. We're taking an opportunity to look back on how the exhibition was developed and built to share some behind-the-scenes stories and photos. Do you have a favorite part of this exhibition?
Museum curators and staff must wrestle with difficult questions in the development of exhibitions. For America on the Move curator Janet Davidson, the question was "How do you bring an 1890s orchard—complete with workers, historically appropriate fruit, and a realistic layout—to life in a museum?"
The development of America on the Move reflected a broader shift in the way the museum created exhibitions, exemplified by the museum's name change—from the Museum of History and Technology to the National Museum of American History. Before the installation of America on the Move, the Road Vehicles Hall and the Railroad Hall exhibited the transportation collection chronologically, focusing on the story of technological change. America on the Move sought to show transportation's impact on society, to contextualize the history of transportation by examining the impact of people and places on technology, and vice versa. This blog explains curator Janet Davidson's thought process behind putting human stories front and center, the difficulties in creating an authentic scene, and some of the research challenges of re-creating a 19th-century orchard.
To tell these stories, the curatorial team focused on four areas in American history: communities, commerce, landscapes, and lives across 15 places and times while balancing historical importance, museum collections, geography, type of transportation, and more. To illustrate how railroads changed communities, the team focused on the California towns of Watsonville and Santa Cruz. These agricultural areas were connected by rail in the 1870s, bringing extensive changes to both communities. We chose Santa Cruz because we have the Jupiter locomotive from the Santa Cruz Railroad. But without any artifacts from Watsonville, we decided to re-create a part of a young orchard in the Pajaro Valley in 1895.
Watsonville and the surrounding Pajaro Valley turned out to be a great place to show the rising importance of fruit to the economy of California. The farm labor in Watsonville, and California, was typical of the role that immigrants—especially Asian immigrants—played in the 19th-century farm economy. Previously owned by Spain and Mexico, this area of California was used for cattle ranching before economic factors pushed its owners to raise grain. As American farmers entered the region in the second half of the 19th century, they began to grow fruits, nuts, and vegetables. To produce these crops, farmers needed access to more water and more laborers than ever before.
To fill those needs, farms hired successive waves of immigrant workers to do the onerous work of planting, pruning, hoeing, and picking produce. Watsonville, which had a significant Chinese community in the 1880s and 1890s, was illustrative of the trends of the state as a whole toward using immigrant labor to harvest crops. Most of the farm labor in the valley was performed by Chinese, followed by Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican, immigrants.
In order to show a commercial agricultural economy and to highlight the role of Chinese men in the workforce, I suggested that the Watsonville field be made to look like an early apple orchard, with strawberries planted between the trees, and that the scene be peopled with cast figures representing the workers in the field.
Then came the task of creating an accurate, three-dimensional setting. I pieced together my vision of what an orchard would look like from an array of sources. A book on the subject from 1900 described the ideal layout of an orchard, but I was wary of basing the scene on an ideal. So I looked at photos, but never found the perfect one. Between the different materials, I cobbled together a sense of the ways that fruit trees were laid out. Taken together, it seemed as if orchardists actually did follow the ideal laid out in the "how-to" books
A black and white photograph of an orchard. The caption reads "A typical Yellow Newton orchard in the Watsonville, California, district. The young orchard in the foreground is interplanted with squash."
A typical Yellow Newton orchard in the Watsonville, California, district. The young orchard in the foreground is interplanted with squash.
With the layout in mind, the next task was to discern what the apples looked like. I hit on the idea of looking at fruit-crate labels to see what kinds of apples came from Watsonville. There were two varieties—the Yellow Newton Pippin and the Yellow Bellflower. As an apple lover, I was surprised to find out how many varieties of apples that I'd never heard of were cultivated in the United States at the end of the 19th century.
A label that reads "Bellflower Apples" with three apples, a woman, an eagle, and an orchard.
"Yellow Bellflower (New Jersey). Very large, oblong, irregular, tapering toward the eye; smooth; lemon color, with blush; stalk long and slender in deep cavity; calyx closed, in rather narrow basin; flesh tender, juicy, crisp, with sprightly subacid flavor; keeps well into the winter; tree a strong grower and healthy; one of the universal favorites in California." Edward James Wickson, The California Fruits and How to Grow Them, 1889.
An crate label with "Newtown Pippins Bachan Fruit" on it.
"Yellow Newtown Pippin. Large, roundish, oblate and oblique, more or less flattened; yellow with brownish red cheek; stalk very short; flesh firm, crisp, juicy, with very rich, high flavor. Generally considered the best winter apple in California" Edward James Wickson, The California Fruits and How to Grow Them, 1889.
Finding out that the Yellow Bellflower was one of the "parents" for the hybrid Red Delicious made imagining it a little easier, but I wasn't sure that my historical imagination was up to the task of making these descriptions into three dimensions. With help from the horticulturalist at Monticello and additional research into how many branches and flowers a young apple tree would have, the picture of a 19th-century orchard started to become clearer. Set in rows, the young trees were pruned, with 10 to 25 feet between trees, interplanted with other crops such as sugar beets or strawberries.
Perhaps most important, we wanted to people the scene. And so we had two cast figures made, representing Chinese field hands at work in the orchard, picking the strawberries planted in between the trees. We had an image of workers in the fields in the 1890s, and we looked at other images of Chinese Californians where they were available. By the 1890s the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting new immigration, was in effect, so we made our figures older workers. We made them male since the vast majority of Chinese migrants to the United States in the 19th century were men. We also tried to convey how hard the work was. One figure has his back to the visitors, with his hands on his lower back, stretching out his tired muscles. The other is stooped over, picking strawberries.
Plaster  of laborers stand in an orchard.
Final version of the cast figures in the exhibition.
Finally, there's a mural in the setting that shows the orchard with fields and the hills in the background. The exhibit space for Watsonville isn't large, but we wanted to give people an impression of the valley and its cultivated lines of trees. A small piece of 19th-century California now resides both in my imagination and tucked away in a corner of the National Museum of American History.
Greg Kenyon is a project assistant in the Division of Work and Industry.