Lying about lettuce

Last week for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I wrote about, what else, icebergs and iceberg words.

As often is the case, I’m finding, it’s the most common expressions that have the most obscure or complex origins. Take iceberg lettuce. We’ve all heard of it; we’ve all had it. But where does the expression come from? The etymology on Wordnik says “From its pale color,” but to me that seemed like just the tip of the iceberg (haha). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the phrase attests to 1893. The OnED is very reliable, but I wanted another source to back this up.

To the internet! The first hit of “iceberg lettuce origin” gives me the Wikipedia article about lettuce which has a lot of info on the types and cultivation of lettuce but nothing about where the expression iceberg lettuce comes from, except to say that it’s also known as crisphead. The second hit is The Kitchen Project’s The History of Iceberg Lettuce. The page says that iceberg lettuce “until the 1930’s was known as Crisphead lettuce,” and that the founder of Fresh Express, Bruce Church, “was responsible for popularizing the idea of shipping lettuce across the US continent from Salinas, California to the spots on the East coast.” The page goes on:

Using ice they carefully covered the heads of lettuce and shipped them. Year around and all the way as far as Maine, as the train pulled into each stop, folks would call out excitedly, “The icebergs are coming, the icebergs are coming!” The name would stick. Before that people had to depend on what you could grow locally and preserve from the gardens.

The Kitchen Project seems to have gotten this story directly from the Fresh Express site itself, while this site from UC Davis repeats the story and adds the date of 1926.

Both of these sites are in direct contrast to the OnED’s date of origin of 1893. Who’s wrong?

I first looked in Google News Archives. My not very scientific method involves setting an end date and seeing if a particular word or phrase occurs before that date. Plugging in an end date of December 31, 1893 yielded no results. So I inched my way up, year by year.

The earliest citation I could find (that wasn’t behind a paywall) was from September 26, 1923, three years before Bruce Church is said to have developed his iced lettuce shipping method: “Pacific Coast Iceberg lettuce brought from $3.00 to $4.50 per crate of three to four dozen heads.”

Not satisfied, I went into Google Books and searched for “iceberg lettuce” in books published before December 31, 1893, and found five examples of “iceberg lettuce” appearing well before 1926. Here are three of them:

  • From American Garden, published in January 1893: “New Iceberg lettuce, a new dwarf pea, an extra-early cucumber, a new cauliflower and a distinct squash all are novelties of the year, free for trial to Burpee’s customers.”
  • In Station Bulletin of Oregon State College, iceberg lettuce is listed among donations in 1894.
  • The Ladies’ Home Journal, published Christmas 1893, includes an advertisement for “new iceberg lettuce.”

So the Online Etymology Dictionary was right, and Bruce Church and Fresh Express are, well, lying.

I’m sure this isn’t the only use of false etymology to sell something, but for the life of me, I can’t think of another one. Wikipedia does have a list of common false etymologies but none are from are from retailers.


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