J.H. sends me a ceramic fumigation pot, alongside a photo of her grandmother's house, in the first quarter of the 20th century set in an unincorporated area of West Covina. The house was located in a working class neighborhood between San Bernardino Road and the Pacifica Electric Street Car tracks. She remembers the train running between West Covina and Los Angeles. Grandma Grace was involved in the citrus industry, like so many entrepreneurs of the early 20th century.
Picture what you know about the industry in those days, and your vision will be informed by images of pretty toddlers and healthy young ladies picking the oranges off a green tree in a beautiful grove. These images say "this is the good life in the Golden State!" And the orange was the symbol of that life.
J.H.'s grandmother would have been familiar with the trappings of a citrus ranch, of which this pot was one, yet some of these tools are unrecognizable today. Grandma Grace would have recognized the picker's bag made of canvas and leather, her citrus clippers, her sizing rings, the field boxes, the belching smudge pots, along with J.H.'s little inherited fumigation pot. J.H. sends me Grandma Grace's front porch pictured in West Covina, lined with these pots, drilled in their bases to become planters.
Daniel Boule's 2014 book The Orange and the Dream of California traces the California citrus industry to 1870 with the introduction of the Washington Naval from Brazil.
The entrepreneur and freethinking spiritualist Eliza Tibbets bought a few Washington Navels as an experiment and planted a few of these trees. Noting how well they grew, she began selling cuttings, eventually making a small fortune. However, not all was prosperous and healthy in the industry, as J.H.'s 12-inch pot might have told us if it could talk.
J.H. writes that she recalls the pride of the early fruit growers, angling for the best looking, untouched fruit with which to bring to market. Perfection meant the eradication of pests that would eat the fruit and damage leaves. This is where her fumigation pot came into play back in the 1900's.
Workers in her grandmother's 10-acre orchard in Covina would cover orange trees with huge canvas tents, wielding long hook-poles, and then weighing these tents down with sandbags. The aim was to kill off the insect called the Icerya purchasi, the aptly named cottony cushion scale, which defaced the fruit. These little pillows of white attached themselves to a leaf and coated it with waxy fibers that protected their egg sac.
Here was the early 20th Century remedy for this disfigurement of the fruit: liquid cyanide was shot into these ceramic handled pots and pushed under the tree tents to sit and off-gas for several days. And someone had to handle the toxic chemical.
In and around those tents was hell to breathe. Cyanide gas caused respiratory and heart failures, not to mention paralysis, liver and kidney failure, and seizures.
J.H.'s Uncle Ray, hired as a young boy, was employed to pull the canvas tents off the trees after they had a few days of cyanide exposure. J.H. writes that Uncle Ray's boyhood coveralls would shred off his frame because of chemical rot. J.H. thinks that Uncle Ray's early death had something to do with the fumigation pots.
Happily, when cyanide was eventually banned, Grandma Grace turned the glazed ceramic pots into sword fern vessels living on her front porch in Covina. The year was 1940, when a gang of Covina boys gathered around those famous 40 foot tall Washingtonia Palms, which made Covina famous, and shot their torches into the top fronds. A tree close to Grandma Grace's orchard barn caught fire when a burning palm frond torched it. Inside was all the orchard equipment and her treasured Model T.
The fumigation pot owned by J.H. here in Santa Barbara is the last survivor of the orchard, and J.H. says it has lived for 100 years. Grandma Grace's pot is definitely a vintage California ceramic, very collectable, and its simple style and coloring is associated with the most famous objects of early 20th Century California pottery.
Pottery was, along with oranges, a California specialty. Notable potteries of the era were Gladding McBean, and Bauer, for example. However, the hole drilled into the bottom devalues the vessel, but certainly not the story. I would say a collector of California orchard equipment and vintage California pottery would pay $300. I bet I will hear from a few willing buyers for J.H.'s pot.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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