Seedsmen Hall of Fame
Honoring Horticulturalists

Alexander W. Livingston
Pioneer Seedsman and the Father of the Modern Tomato
by Mike Dunton

[ Bio ] [ Business History ] [ Livingston Tomatoes ]


Alexander W. LivingstonAlexander Livingston may not have introduced the world to the tomato, but he is the first seedsman to methodically and intentionally develop varieties with specific traits. He thus fostered the growth of the commercial tomato industry in the United States. Mr. Livingston and his seed company contributed more to the development of the tomato as a commercial crop than any other.

Tomatoes had been cultivated in the Americas for millennia and integrated into European cuisine after the earliest explorers to the “New World” returned home. However, here in the United States, tomatoes were occasionally grown as ornamental curiosities but rarely for consumption. They were even widely believed to be poisonous well into the nineteenth century.

It has been speculated that that these trends were due to the poor quality of the generally “wild” nature of the tomatoes that were available at that time. They were described as strong smelling and unpleasantly acidic.

By the mid-1800s, tomatoes had finally become more popular and were developing into an important commercial crop. This was due in part by the waves of European immigrants and their different dietary preferences. Still, little had been done to actually improve the quality of the species. Just a handful of named varieties existed and most of those were being imported from England and France.

It was in this period of history that Alexander W. Livingston was born, lived, found purpose, and celebrated for his accomplishments.

Alexander Wilmer Livingston was born on October 14, 1821, in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, when it was not much more than a pioneer farming community. At the age of ten, by his own recollection, he encountered his first tomatoes growing in a garden in the area.

Catching his attention and piquing his youthful curiosity, he recounted that he, “. . . quickly gathered a few of them in my hands, and took them to my mother to ask, ‘What they were?’ As soon as she saw me with them, she cried out, ‘You must not eat them, my child. They must be poison, for even the hogs will not eat them.’

Who could have guessed that this encounter would one day not only become his calling, it would lead to his fame among gardeners, farmers, plant breeders, tomato processors, and his seedsman peers, worldwide.

Raised in an early nineteenth century farming environment, formal schooling was not available. Presumably, his parents placed importance on education because Alex learned reading, writing, arithmetic, studied grammar, and developed a curious and methodical nature.

As a young man he began working for a local seed farmer. It was during this employment that he began noticing, studying and memorizing different plant traits. Becoming a seed farmer himself was not something he was considering at this point in his life.

A few years later in 1844, he married, and in the natural course of starting a family, laid down roots by first leasing land on which to farm, eventually saving enough money to buy his own land. He set to work producing seed for the burgeoning seed industry, began experimenting with various vegetables, and testing his ideas based on his observations. This of course included tomatoes.

When Mr. Livingston began his attempts to develop the tomato as a commercial crop, his goal was to produce fruits that were smooth skinned, uniform in size and having better flavor. Most tomato varieties at that time did not possess any of these attributes.

After many attempts at hybridization, he began instead a process of selecting seed from tomato plants exhibiting specific characteristics that he was interested in. While using this selection process he discovered a plant which bore perfect tomatoes that remained true-to-type in successive generations.

After five years of selection, the fruit became fleshier and larger. In 1870, Alexander was happy with his new variety, and introduced it to the world as the 'Paragon' tomato.

Alexander was posthumously recognized for his contributions by the United States Department of Agriculture in their 1937 "Yearbook of Agriculture." They wrote:

"The work of A. W. Livingston, of Columbus, Ohio, and his associates and successors in the Livingston Seed Co. has resulted in the introduction of more new varieties than that of any other private group. Most of the varieties introduced by the Livingstons were of their own finding or origination . . ."

"With all due credit to the important contributions of other growers, seedsmen, and investigators, it is not out of place to call attention again to the great contribution of the Livingston Seed Co. to tomato improvement."

Over the course of his working life, Alexander Livingston introduced fifteen tomato varieties by the time he passed away on November 11, 1898. Many of his introductions were used by breeders to select from, or include in the parentage, of subsequent varieties. In all, A. W. Livingston and his company introduced thirty-five varieties of tomatoes, not to mention their other vegetable variety releases.


By the mid-twentieth century, most of the Livingston varieties had all but disappeared from availability. Beginning in 1999, the Victory Seed Company began the long process of recreating Livingston’s seed collection. This involved locating, growing, and comparing fruit against the historical record to ensure accuracy before reintroducing varieties. From this preservation work, many of the Livingston’s original tomatoes are once again available to the gardening public. You can find seeds for them by clicking here.


[ Click Here for Livingston Genealogical Information ]
 

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