When cultural critic Raymond Williams explored the complex of etymologies shaping certain “keywords” of our vocabulary in 1976, the word “organic” did not escape his purview. From the Romantic movement of the mid-nineteenth century onward, organic stood in contrast to a word it had once been synonymous with: mechanical. By the end of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, Williams claimed, the word had taken a primarily conservative cast in social thought, where organic described a society that preexisted the rise of the modern state and industry. In the mid-1970s, Williams found organic had become a description a specific relationship to society, such as an ecological relationship. Additionally, Williams noted in his own time, organic referred to a “specialized use of farming and foods, with a stress on natural rather than artificial fertilizers or growing and breeding methods (emphasis original)” This use of organic, Williams claimed, was “linked with general criticism of industrial society.”
How did the idea of organic evolve from a method of fertilizing soils to a broader critique of industrial society? In my research I use the life of J.I. Rodale, an American publisher and natural health enthusiast to explore the transformation of organic and the emergence of a “popular culture” of environmentalism.
Jerome Irving Rodale was as unlikely as any to lead an agricultural movement. Born in 1898 in an immigrant Jewish family, Rodale grew up in a Lower East Side tenement. After completing high school and a few college courses, he left New York for Washington, D.C. to work as an accountant, first for the IRS, and later for steel companies in Pittsburgh. Rodale, by most accounts, became interested in the subject of nutrition and health after being diagnosed with a heart condition while still in his twenties. A decade later, he learned about organic farming methods from the work of British agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard. When Rodale started a manufacturing business in the town of Emmaus, Pennsylvania in the 1930s, he also purchased a nearby farm to pursue his agricultural interests. Taking up Howard’s challenge to produce practical experiments, Rodale hoped to use his farm as a laboratory for organic methods and personal health.
Had Rodale only been interested in having a farm out in the country, it is unlikely he would have made much of an impact. However, in addition to his interests in health and farming, Rodale was also an aspiring writer and publisher. Rodale built a small press attached to his manufacturing company, and initially turned out small pamphlets and Reader’s Digest-type booklets of health advice. After republishing Howard’s work, Rodale soon began publishing his own work on the subject of soil and health, starting his own periodical, Organic Gardening and Farming in 1942.
J.I. Rodale is only part of the story here. The story is also about the company that he founded, the Rodale Press, which would become one of the first businesses devoted to what we know call “green” consumerism. As early as the 1950s, Rodale and his staff were working to bring together producers and consumers of natural products, and the press used the pages of magazines and books to define the practices of a natural consumer.