by Diana Bulls
Reamers–a useful little kitchen gadget–have been around for a long time, but their heyday only lasted through the 1930s and into World War II.
Over 200 years ago, humans discovered that eating citrus would provide a cure for diseases like scurvy. Scurvy is the classic vitamin C deficiency disease and one of the limiting factors for early ocean exploration and travel. Scurvy killed huge numbers of ship crew members and passengers. It was 1753 when James Lind, a Scottish surgeon for the Royal Navy, proved that scurvy could be treated with citrus (interestingly the Royal Navy wouldn’t accept his recommendations and thousands of British sailors and solders died from scurvy during the American Revolution).
Sometime around 1767, the reamer came into being in order to extract the juice from mostly lemons. The reamer is also known as a squeezer or juicer, and basically has a central, pointed-top cone. You simply position half a fruit on top of the cone and grind the fruit back and forth, extracting the juice and then throwing away the rind. Of course, you also have to fish out the seeds.
Nowadays, most juicers are electrical and automatically turn their ridged center when the fruit is pressed on it. There are also built-in strainers which take care of the seeds and pulp. This makes the whole juicing function faster, and then there is that whole “convenience thing” of buying fresh or frozen juices at the grocery store.
Convenience and modern technology have been known to make a lot of perfectly useable kitchen utensils become obsolete.
A little citrus history
Spanish explorers first brought lemons, oranges and limes to Florida around 1565, and the Franciscan missionaries brought them to San Diego, California in 1769. Unfortunately, the California climate did not support lime growth.
During the gold rush, fortune hunters flocked into California and many of them (especially those debarking from ships) were suffering from scurvy. Because these minors and explorers knew that citrus could prevent and protect from the disease, the fruit were in great demand. People would pay up to $1 per lemon. According to Dave Manuel’s 2014 inflation calculator, that is worth $30.30 today! According to Andrew F Smith, the author of Fifteen Turning Points In the Making of American Beverages, in every gold rush town saloon…”each bartender had his own lemon squeezer–the fancier the bar, the fancier the lemon squeezer.”
Reamer collector Ed Walker of Los Angeles shared this tidbit of California history during an interview at a reamer convention while brandishing a heavy early-model reamer. “These were lemon squeezers, and they were also enforcers. The bartenders would use the reamers to knock unruly customers into submission.”
Until the early 20th century, it was unusual for Americans to drink orange juice, and reamers were used mainly to squeeze juice out of lemons for drinks or garnishes. Drinking orange juice “just wasn’t a major thing,” according to consumer services for Sunkist Growers.
So, what caused the boom in reamers?
Reamers first came into vogue in the early 18th Century for squeezing the juice from lemons to complement food and drinks. The first reamers were all produced in Europe by major china companies like Meissen and Limoges.
The first reamer patented in the United States was after the Civil War in 1867. It was a one piece, hand-held reamer. Next came a one piece reamer (a small saucer and a cone) that was meant to fit on top of a glass. It didn’t work out too well and tended to make quite a mess because it slid off the glass. In the 1880s a glass rim was added to the bottom of the saucer to help keep it on the glass. Around the same time, wooden squeezers with a press action were also being used. Two-piece sets with measuring pitcher bottoms and separate reamer tops did not come along until the mid 1920s. The biggest boom for reamers came in 1907 and was all due to a farmer co-op named the “California Fruit Growers Exchange” (CFGE). (Sorry, I have to go back in history mode now.)
Sunkist is born
In California, during the early citrus industry years, over-production was a big problem. By 1907, the state was producing five times more oranges than 15 years earlier. CFGE embarked on the first ever, large-scale ad campaign aimed at advertising a perishable commodity, and as a result launched the Sunkist brand. The co-op changed their name to Sunkist Growers, Inc. in 1908.
To distinguish Sunkist oranges from other brands, fruit was wrapped in paper stamped “Sunkist”. But in 1909, Sunkist learned that merchants were selling non-Sunkist oranges as Sunkist, so they began to offer consumers a free Sunkist-branded sterling silver spoon in exchange for saving and mailing in 12 Sunkist wrappers. According to Sunkist, 100,000 spoons were claimed that first year of the promotion. The pattern name was Orange Blossom and could only be purchased one piece at a time, by sending in wrappers. By 1910, the promotion had resulted in Sunkist becoming the world’s largest purchaser of cutlery!
In 1916, Sunkist began a “Drink an Orange” ad campaign to promote the new concept of orange juice; reamers were a natural promotional item and the orange juice market exploded.
The first reamers were embossed “Sunkist Oranges and Lemons,” and “Sunkist-California Fruit Growers Exchange, Los Angeles.” They were made of transparent green glass and sold in variety and grocery stores for 10 cents. You could also order them by mail, 16 cents in the US or 24 cents in Canada. “Sunkist” quickly became a household word. The reamers were advertised in Good Housekeeping, and promised to hold more juice, extract juice easier with its higher cone and sharper bridges and be easier to transfer the juice with an easy-pour handle.
Several companies produced the Sunkist reamer from Pacific Coast Glass Works, Sunset Glass Company, McKee, Thatcher and Jeanette. McKee made mold modifications to improve quality control and increase production, and they began to produce the reamers in a rainbow of colors: white milk glass, transparent green, jadite, pink, custard, yellow, fry opal, dark jade, crystal, caramel, blue milk glass, crown Tuscan, green fry, ivory, black, teal blue, and butterscotch. Jeanette discontinued producing the Sunkist reamer in 1965.
Reamers are collectible, why?
In addition to the companies making Sunkist reamers, other glass companies jumped on the bandwagon, not only introducing new colors, but new shapes as well. American pottery companies like Redwing, McCoy and Hall also produced reamers. Then came the 1930s trade agreements with Japan and the door opened and inexpensive Japanese ceramics flooded the dime stores. However, in the 1930s, electric juicers became popular, and then the final death knell sounded: frozen juice.
Reamers come in all type of materials, shapes and colors. They can be one, two or three pieces. They can be plain or fancy. They even come in sets: reamer, pitcher and juice glasses. The number of reamers once available ranges to the thousands, and there are still reamers out there just waiting to be “loved.” I’ve said this before regarding the search for collectibles, but the first (and best) place to look for a reamer is in your mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen. If she isn’t using it, that reamer could be the beginning of a great collection.
Check out the National Reamers Collectors Association at www.reamers.org.
Thank you Amanda Stephens, Lois Strole and Monte Alvis for sharing your reamers for photos.
• Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 2014. Scurvy. Encyclopedia Britannica (Academic Edition Ed.).
• George Matejian Foundation. 2014. The World’s Healthiest Foods Web Pages. “Lemon/Limes-The World’s Healthiest Foods” and “Oranges-The World’s Healthiest Foods”. www.whfoods.com
• Mattson, E. 1987. Collectors Gather: So What’s a Reamer? One Juicy Hobby. Los Angeles Times, Aug 8.
• McMahon, Mary. 2014. wiseGEEK: What is a Reamer? (ed) O. Wallace. Jan 9. http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-reamer.htm
• Andrew F. Smith. 2012. Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages. Columbia University Press. 336 pp.
• “Sunkist History”. 2014. www.sunkist.com/flash/timeline/htm
Check out more of Diana’s kitchen collectible articles here in KRL’s Hometown History section.