For over 150yrs George Stephenson, of Rocket fame, has been credited with inventing and even patenting the cucumber straightener. After researching this I disagree!
Museums; garden writers; historians; auction houses and antique experts have passed on this suspect information via books, articles and in recent years websites, blogs and videos. Indeed this error was also continued in our own museum when first displaying a cucumber glass in 2016.
Consequently, we endeavour to establish the true provenance of exhibits in our collection from actual source material, together with extensive research, rather than relying on the internet. This will hopefully avoid setting erroneous facts in stone for future generations.
it appears the link between the cucumber straightener and Stephenson came from Samuel Smiles biographical work ‘The Life of George Stephenson’. This was published in 1857, only nine years after Stephenson’s death. Smiles states that it was not until 1845 that Stephenson took an active interest in horticultural pursuits, having ten glass forcing-houses built. Stephenson was friends with Joseph Paxton, head gardener employed by the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. It was at this time that he pursued the growing of pineapples and cucumbers.
Extract below from Smiles book with reference to the cucumber and glass cylinders……
He took much pride also in the growth of cucumbers. He raised them very fine and large, but he could not make them grow straight. Place them as he would not withstanding all his propping of them, and humouring them by modifying the application of heat and the admission of light for the purpose of effecting his object, they would still insist on growing crooked in their own way. At last he had a number of glass cylinders made at Newcastle, for the purpose of an experiment; into these the growing cucumbers were inserted, and then he succeeded in growing them perfectly straight.
Carrying one of the new products into his house one day, and exhibiting it to a party of visitors, he told them of the expedient he had adopted and added gleefully, “I think I have bothered them noo!”
Research reveals that glass tubes and other devices for straightening cucumbers were being used long before Stephenson manufactured his.
In the early 1800’s several eminent horticulturists wrote treatises on cucumber culture. The relevant information obtained from the library of the Royal Horticultural Society, is extracted below:
Evidence of Existence Prior to 1845
1833/4 William Ely Allen
A treatise on an extremely original system of cultivating cucumbers and other vegetables.
Under the heading ‘Straightening’ he refers to “laying the cucumber on a sheet of glass and using 3 sticks carefully secured, stating that this is better than a trough or tube!”
1836 The British Cyclopaedia of Natural History by Charles F. Partington
1841 John Duncan
There should be cylinders provided to protect the spine and bloom; and in some cases they will encourage a crooked fruit to become straight: ours are made of best white glass, eighteen inches long and two diameter throughout.
1841 William Port Ayres
A treatise on the cultivation of the cucumber
If the fruit should grow crooked, they must be place in glass tubes or narrow troughs.
1842 John C Loudon
The Suburban Horticulturist
Whilst Loudon did not make mention of a cucumber tube or cylinder in his highly regarded Encyclopaedia of Gardening, 1822, he did praise the Ayre’s treatise as being the best and re-affirmed the use of glass tubes or troughs.
1842 Gardeners Chronicle
Glass cucumber tubes were offered for sale, all lengths 6d to 4s each by Apsley Pellatt, Blackfriars, London. The Pellatt family were owners and directors of the Falcon Glass Works, which they took over in 1790. Under the direction of Apsley Pellatt IV they were the pre-eminent London glassmaking factory of the 19th century.
Patents or the Lack Thereof
The British Library has confirmed, firstly that George Stephenson did not indeed patent the glass tubes. The five patents he did register between 1815 and 1846 all related to the railways as expected. Secondly, a search was also undertaken for the period 1617-1852 to ascertain if any other individuals had taken out a patent for the glass tubes, this proved negative.
George Stephenson was very close to eminent horticultural experts of the time, including Joseph Paxton, against whom he competed to grow the best hothouse fruits/vegetables. It can therefore be assumed he would have sought the best growing techniques available at the time as described in the treatises mentioned above. Having learned of the glass tubes and with access to a glass foundry he could simply have had some made for his personal use.
Museum of Gardening, Hassocks