Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, August 24, 2006


Page 11



U.S. High Court Decides What Beans Are




The New York Times on Jan. 26, 1886 reported:

“A jury in the United States Circuit Court, yesterday, decided that a bean was a seed and not a vegetable. The question came up on a question of duties imposed by the Collector of the Port. Duties were charged under the classification of vegetables; a lower rate is charged for seeds. Henry E. Tremain contended that the bean was a seed, and offered in evidence gardeners’ lists in which beans and peas were classified by themselves as seeds. Assistant United States District Attorney Platt offered a bill of fare of Nash & Crook, wherein baked beans figured. After rendering the verdict the Jury adjourned to a neighboring restaurant, noted for its beans, and proceeded to test their verdict.”

The government took that case to the United States Supreme Court (on a writ of error). The high court, in a unanimous decision, reversed.

The 1889 opinion by Justice Joseph Bradley in Robertson v. Salomon came close to pronouncing beans a vegetable, but remanded for a new trial.

Bradley wrote:

“We do not see why they should be classified as seeds any more than walnuts should be so classified. Both are seeds, in the language of botany or natural history, but not in commerce nor in common parlance. On the other hand, in speaking generally of provisions, beans may well be included under the term ‘vegetables.’ As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put. Beyond the common knowledge which we have on this subject very little evidence is necessary, or can be produced. But on the trial the parties deemed it important to introduce a great deal of testimony. The court, however, did not allow the defendant to prove the common designation of beans as an article of food. It was shown by the evidence that beans are generally sold and dealt in under the simple designation of ‘beans;’ but that does not solve the question as between the rival designations of ‘seeds’ and ‘vegetables.’ The common designation, as used in every-day life, when beans are used as food, (which is the great purpose of their production,) would have been very proper to be shown, in the absence of further light from commercial usage. We think that the evidence on this point ought to have been admitted.”

The “New Era” in Iowa commented on March 8, 1889:

“The supreme court has just decided that beans are vegetables. This is rough on Boston. That cultured city can no longer push them on to a suffering world as fruit.”

On remand, the trial judge, Emile Henry Lacombe, granted a motion for a directed verdict in favor of the tax collector, explaining:

“Why it would have been proper to introduce testimony as to how the beans were called when they were used as food, I fail to see, unless it was on the principle that the use of the article was to determine its classification.

“The use of an article is a question of fact, and I should send this case to the jury, were it not for the testimony of the plaintiff, which is that, as to this particular importation, the affidavit which he made upon the back of the entry is a true statement; that affidavit stating that the beans are to be used exclusively as food. For that reason I shall direct a verdict for the defendant. Verdict accordingly.”

Beans were classified as vegetables in a 1893 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in dictum. The issue was whether tomatoes were fruits or vegetables for purposes of taxation. Justice Horace Gray wrote:

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

In 1895, the court proclaimed beans—in the case before it, medium white beans and lentils—to be vegetables. Chief Justice Melville Fuller said:

“The predominant use of lentils and beans is for food, and, as so used, they are commonly called ‘vegetables,’ although they may be regarded botanically as seeds, and may sometimes be used for seeding purposes.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1909 declared canned truffles to be a vegetable. In 1950, the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals found that sliced dehydrated onions are a vegetable, while onion powder is a spice. In separate decisions, the U.S. Customs Court has found that lotus seeds and water chestnuts are vegetables, but rhubarb is a fruit.

Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company

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