Letter to Romenesko
From BRUCE LAMBERT, former New York Times reporter: Years ago, while scrolling through old New York Times microfilms on a totally different topic, I was startled to come across the following multi-decked headline:
The publication date was June 22, 1895.
What followed under that heading was a story explaining that despite watermelon’s popularity among blacks, their consumption was NOT the cause of rising prices.
The article appeared to rebut an unstated premise (a rumor, a myth, a claim, an editor’s wrong hunch?) that melon-eating Negroes were driving up the cost in a supply/demand dynamic.
An unintentional self-parody of Times preoccupation with details, the story laboriously estimates the number of Negroes in NY, the number of railroad cars carrying watermelon (70 cars in July and August), the number of melons per car (1,100), an equal number of melons imported by steamship, and the average pounds per melon (25), then calculates how much of that total melon supply was consumed by Negroes.
It further speculates that Negroes working at restaurants and boarding houses consumed some melon in the workplace, so they weren’t buying directly.
Some Negroes were too poor to afford melon, the article says.
And – this is a real howler – some were too young:
“Out of the 23,6000 colored people in the city, at least 2,000 are under the melon-eating age,” The Times reported, “since the inventor has not yet come forward who has discovered a method of liquefying melons for use in feeding bottles.”
Too soon for watermelon smoothies, I guess.
Well, read the whole for yourself and be prepared for serial eye-rolling.
The story is oddly tagged under a short on street mapping. To find it in Times online archives, go to the “All Since 1851″ time frame and use these search terms: “watermelon, Negroes, map.”
Click on the first item, about annexed streets. A pdf file pops up with a picture of the watermelon story appended to the street map story.
And for a real cultural eye-opener, search simply for “watermelon, Negroes” and find all sorts of stories on things like watermelon theft, a boy who jumped into the water with a melon and drowned, and a 1925 feature on “Darkies” and watermelon.