Why is New Jersey Called the Garden State?

By Teo Spengler

Tomatoes and cranberries and spinach, oh my

Why is New Jersey Called the Garden State?

Anyone who picked up a nickname in grade school that stuck like glue into adulthood will appreciate New Jersey's position. Over a century ago, a politician called New Jersey the Garden State in a passing critique of its neighboring states. Years later, the nickname is written on every state license plate, but very few New Jersey residents can tell you why.

A barrel tapped on both ends

In 1876, Abraham Browning of Camden, a prominent New Jersey politician, referred to his state as "the Garden State" during a speech at the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition on New Jersey Day, August 24. He used the phrase as he railed against neighbor states for taking New Jersey resources. Browning compared New Jersey to an immense barrel filled with good things to eat and open at both ends, with Pennsylvanians grabbing from one end and New Yorkers from the other.

Some historians claim that it was Ben Franklin who first used the "barrel open at both ends" analogy. But Browning generally gets the credit. The nickname stuck tight to the state through 1954 when the legislature voted to put this slogan on New Jersey automobile license plates.

A controversial slogan

Is "the Garden State" an official nickname of the state? Is it an appropriate one? New Jersey powers-that-be have debated both of these questions over the years without coming to a definitive conclusion.

In 1954, when the bill passed to include the slogan on license plates, the New Jersey governor was Robert Meyner. The bill hit his desk for signature, and he looked into the issue, determining that the nickname had never been officially recognized by any part of the government. He also doubted its appropriateness, given the many other things associated with the state.

He wrote in his letter vetoing the bill: "I do not believe that the average citizen of New Jersey regards his state as more peculiarly identifiable with gardening or farming than with any of its other industries or occupations." Despite the Governor's reservations, the legislature overrode his veto.

Little understood but perhaps appropriate

Governor Meyner's assessment that many New Jersey residents did not identify the state closely with gardening proved accurate. And many today aren't sure why the nickname was chosen. Fairleigh Dickinson University and the New Jersey Farm Bureau ran a survey about the nickname and discovered that 40 percent of New Jerseyans have no idea how the state came to be called the Garden State.

As to whether the nickname is appropriate, New Jersey farmers do produce some 100 different kinds of fruits and vegetables, with some 715,000 acres dedicated to agriculture. Agriculture is the state’s third-largest industry and is valued at over a billion dollars. So what crops do New Jersey farmers grow? Tomatoes, cranberries, spinach and bell peppers, to name a few. The state ranks high in peach and blueberry production and also raises lots of corn, soybeans, potatoes, apples and strawberries.

This is a good story for visitors to New Jersey to keep in mind. If you're looking for farm-fresh food when you are vacationing in New Jersey, pick something raised in the Garden State.

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between French Basque Country and California.