Nix v. Hedden

Nix v. Hedden
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Submitted April 24, 1893
Decided May 10, 1893
Full case name John Nix, John W. Nix, George W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix v. Edward L. Hedden, Collector of the Port of New York
Citations 149 U.S. 304 (more)
149 U.S. 304; 13 S. Ct. 981; 37 L. Ed. 745; 1893 U.S. LEXIS 2303
Prior history Judgment for defendant, 39 F. 109 (C.C. S.D.N.Y. 1889)
Subsequent history None
Tomatoes are "vegetables" and not "fruit" within the meaning of the Tariff Act of 1883 based on the common meaning of those words.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Gray, joined by unanimous
Laws applied
Tariff Act of 1883 (Mongrel Tariff)

Nix v. Hedden, 149 U.S. 304 (1893),[1] was a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that affirmed the lower court ruling that the tomato should be classified under customs regulations as a vegetable rather than a fruit. The Court's unanimous opinion held that the Tariff Act of 1883 used the ordinary meaning of the words "fruit" and "vegetable," under which a tomato is classified as a vegetable, instead of the technical botanical meaning.


Background of the case

The Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. The case was filed as an action by John Nix, John W. Nix, George W. Nix, and Frank W. Nix against Edward L. Hedden, Collector of the Port of New York, to recover back duties paid under protest. Botanically, a tomato is a fruit because it is a seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant.

At the trial the plaintiffs' counsel, after reading in evidence definitions of the words 'fruit' and 'vegetables' from Webster's Dictionary, Worcester's Dictionary, and the Imperial Dictionary, called two witnesses, who had been for 30 years in the business of selling fruit and vegetables, and asked them, after hearing these definitions, to say whether these words had "any special meaning in trade or commerce, different from those read."

During testimony, one witness testified that in regard to the dictionary definition:

"[the dictionary] does not classify all things there, but they are correct as far as they go. It does not take all kinds of fruit or vegetables; it takes a portion of them. I think the words 'fruit' and 'vegetable' have the same meaning in trade today that they had on March 1, 1883. I understand that the term 'fruit' is applied in trade only to such plants or parts of plants as contain the seeds. There are more vegetables than those in the enumeration given in Webster's Dictionary under the term 'vegetable,' as 'cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, potatoes, peas, beans, and the like,' probably covered by the words 'and the like.'"

Another witness testified that "I don't think the term 'fruit' or the term 'vegetables' had, in March 1883, and prior thereto, any special meaning in trade and commerce in this country different from that which I have read here from the dictionaries."[2]

Both the plaintiffs' counsel and the defendant's counsel made use of the dictionaries. The plaintiffs' counsel read in evidence from the same dictionaries the definitions of the word tomato, while the defendant's counsel then read in evidence from Webster's Dictionary the definitions of the words pea, egg plant, cucumber, squash, and pepper. Countering this, the plaintiff then read in evidence from Webster's and Worcester's dictionaries the definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and bean.

The Court's decision

Botanically, a tomato is a fruit. However, in common parlance it is seen as a vegetable, hence the United States Supreme Court ruled that legally, a tomato is a vegetable.

The court unanimously decided in favor of the defense and found that the tomato was classified as a vegetable, based on the ways in which it is used, and the popular perception to this end. Justice Horace Gray, writing the opinion for the Court, stated that:

"The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word 'fruit' as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are 'fruit,' as distinguished from 'vegetables,' in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act."

Justice Gray cited several different Supreme Court cases (Brown v. Piper, 91 U.S. 37, 42, and Jones v. U.S., 137 U.S. 202, 216) and stated that when words have acquired any special meaning in trade or commerce the ordinary meaning must be used by the court. In this case dictionaries cannot be admitted as evidence, but only as aids to the memory and understanding of the court. Gray acknowledged that botanically, tomatoes are classified as a "fruit of the vine", nevertheless they are seen as vegetables because they were usually eaten as a main course instead of being eaten as a dessert. In making his decision, Justice Gray mentioned another case where it had been claimed that beans were seeds — Justice Bradley, in Robertson v. Salomon, 130 U.S. 412, 414, similarly found that though a bean is botanically a seed, in common parlance a bean is seen as a vegetable. While on the subject, Gray clarified the status of the cucumber, squash, pea, and bean.

Subsequent jurisprudence

Nix has been cited in three Supreme Court decisions as a precedent for court interpretation of common meanings, especially dictionary definitions. (Sonn v. Maggone, 159 U.S. 417 (1895); Saltonstall v. Wiebusch & Hilger, 156 U.S. 601 (1895); and Cadwalder v. Zeh, 151 U.S. 171 (1894)). Additionally, in JSG Trading Corp. v. Tray-Wrap, Inc., 917 F.2d 75 (2d Cir. 1990), a case unrelated to Nix aside from the shared focus on tomatoes, a judge wrote the following paragraph citing the case:

"In common parlance tomatoes are vegetables, as the Supreme Court observed long ago, see Nix v. Hedden 149 U.S. 304, 307, 13 S.Ct. 881, 882, 37 L.Ed. 745 (1893), although botanically speaking they are actually a fruit. 26 Encyclopedia Americana 832 (Int'l. ed. 1981). Regardless of classification, people have been enjoying tomatoes for centuries, even Mr. Pickwick, as Dickens relates, ate his chops in 'tomata' sauce."

In 2005, supporters in the New Jersey legislature cited Nix as a basis for a bill designating the tomato as the official state vegetable.[3]

See also


  1. ^ Full text of the opinion in Nix v. Hedden courtesy of
  2. ^ 149 U.S. at 305.
  3. ^ State of New Jersey, 212th Legislature, No. A1210


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