Posted on 07 February 2008 by

The History of Throwing Rotten Tomatoes

Rotten TomatoBy Michelle Fabio

We’ve all heard of or even seen people throwing rotten tomatoes when disappointed in a live performance; indeed this is where popular movie reviewing and previewing site Rotten Tomatoes gets its name from.

But did people really throw rotten tomatoes at actors?

Well, obviously not during Shakespeare’s time since, as according to the website of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, tomatoes weren’t even available in England at that time. The site notes, though, that at the end of performances, the actors announced the following day’s features–and if people didn’t like it, they just might have thrown things.

But not tomatoes.

There is at least one documented case of an aspiring actor in Hempstead, Long Island, New York being pelted with tomatoes throughout a performance at Washington Hall. The October 28, 1883 edition of the New York Times reports that John Ritchie was hit “square between the eyes” with a tomato while trying to perform a trapeze act. With his damages estimated at $50, Ritchie not surprisingly vowed never to perform in Hempstead again.

No matter how prevalent the act actually was (and is), throwing tomatoes has become associated with protests–remember the post about PETA’s use of tomatoes in its war against fur?

The idea has even reached political circles as the Dutch Socialist party has adopted the tomato as its symbol because of this connotation.

But I still have to ask–what did the tomatoes do to deserve this fate?

20 Responses to “The History of Throwing Rotten Tomatoes”

  1. Rachael Says:

    What a cool and informative blog! But, as you can tell by my Web site, probably not my favorite subject. Still, really neat.


  2. michelle Says:

    Thanks Rachael! And thanks for appreciating the blog despite your, ahem, strong opinion on the subject matter 😉

  3. Wolvie Says:

    A stupid story. When I was about 8 years old. My grandfather hired a couple of guys to do some maintenance work on our property. Repairing a fence, that sort of thing. The helper of the main contractor was “challenged” that is as PC as I can put it. We grew apples, cherries, and grapes for wine. Our neighbors however, grew tomatoes.

    There was a galvanized bucket of the absolute nastiest, squishy soft, rotted variety sitting beside the wall that divided the two properties. I couldn’t resist.

    My cousin and I picked a few choice specimens and threw them at the seat of the helper. He was wearing overalls and the sound. The wonderful splat was incredible. He chased us and we ran. I got into a lot of trouble for it later.

    To clarify, this was the 1970’s. In a suburban development (not the country). My family were all college educated and quite upper-middle class.

    But, the sound and the splat-is-faction explains why people throw tomatoes.

    I am still not sorry.

    Muah hah hah hah

  4. chris Says:

    Hmm, that is not what I was taught in college. I think it was in Shakespeare’s time, but am not sure. However, the practice did start in England. At the time, tomatoes were considered poisonous (as were potatoes, some 500 years prior btw, give or take) and hence of no use, except to throw at bad performers. Vendors would sell them outside of theatres before the show. And having been there, I do know tomatoes grow there…
    Can’t swear to it, just my two cents 🙂

  5. steve Says:

    actually it was the potato that was the weapon of choice. much more damage, threw one at celine dion’s final performance… may have heard about it.

  6. michelle Says:

    *Wolvie, OK, maybe this is wrong too, but that story’s pretty funny 😉 I think you’re onto something with the plain *fun* involved in the act. Excellent point.

    *Chris, I’m only going on what was written on the Globe Theatre’s website! If you check the link in the post, you may have to then click on “Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre” in the left sidebar to get to the part with the Frequently Asked Questions, but that’s where it talks about tomatoes. Perhaps you could send your prof the link 😉

    *Steve, that’s not very nice 😉

    Thanks everyone for commenting! And for not throwing any actual tomatoes at me 😉

  7. Wolvie Says:

    An addendum to my previous response. I wish it had been Celine wearing the denim overalls. I have to agree with Steve. The bad part is she would have been the same age as me. Albeit two months older. Wouldn’t have been anywhere near as fun. Much smaller target and all that. Aaah, but if we could see where it would lead. Anyway, thank you Michelle. Enjoy your site. My favorite cooking/eating tomatoes are the sort of yellow/orange variety that come from our downtown farmers’ market here in SW Virginia. The red ones from the supermarket have almost no taste whatsoever and aren’t good for much…except throwing.

  8. michelle Says:

    Poor Celine! Anyway, thanks Wolvie–I’m glad you’re enjoying the site, and I remember those red supermarket tomatoes well. Farmers’ markets are definitely the way to go!

  9. our friend Ben Says:

    Actually, I suspect that the theatergoers of Shakespeare’s time and beyond threw orange peels and apple cores at the performers, since oranges and apples were sold before the performance (Nell Gwynne, the mistress of Charles II, got her start as an “orange girl”), much as popcorn is now. Eat the fruit, throw the trash, right? But there’s absolutely no doubt that the “splatisfaction”–and thanks, Wolvie, for an amazing word–of throwing a ripe tomato would be much greater!

  10. michelle Says:

    *Ben, splatisfaction is a fabulous word, I agree 🙂

  11. Aileen Says:

    Well, rotten tomatoes as well as not-rotten potatoes are indeed among the most satisfying projectiles against freight trains (the only entrance/exit to my property is often blocked by trains for no apparent reason). It’s something fun to do with tomatoes too rotten to eat, and a good gage of effective range when tuning up the spudzuka. But the most pleasurable projectile for use in a well-tuned spudzuka (make sure nobody’s watching) against graffitti-laden boxcars are rock-hard cinnamon pears.

  12. michelle Says:

    Aileen, you’re an expert! Thanks for the advice on the spudzuka…not that I’d encourage violence, but that’s hilarious 😉

  13. Sandier Pastures Says:

    Poor tomatoes. I would put them in my pasta than throwing them!

  14. michelle Says:

    I hear you Grace 🙂

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  17. rachel Says:

    What were theses people called

  18. haterofnotalent Says:

    i would like to know, in the state of new york, what the punishment might be for throwing a tomato at a performer.
    is it less, more severe during a concert, festival, club appearance? what’s the damage? I really need to throw this tomato at someone specific. The performer is not overly famous. I’m sure assault charges could come into play… but having to go to court to talk about having been assailed by a flying tomato during a performance would in itself only cause further humiliation to the splatt-ee. So again, what’s the punishment for such an offense?

  19. C. L. Says:

    So throwing rotten tomatoes didn’t happen in Shakespeare’s England. That means it never happened. Ever. Anywhere. I like this logic. If this bird is not black, then no bird is black. Fantastic. And fantastic that commenters readily picked up on this and threw their own rotten tomatoes at it.

    By the way, there are great rotten tomato throwing festivals in Italy, if anyone’s interested.

  20. speaking of tomatoes | collecting tokens Says:

    […] had heard of people throwing tomatoes in protest, but more in a public shaming of a politician or performer sort of way. Not as a mass political protest. Especially where the […]

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