The watermelon is a big red signal of summer. And as the photo at the top of the story suggests, there is something inherently fun about this juicy and oversized fruit. In that photo from the old game show Play Your Hunch, the couple had to guess the weight of the watermelon, and you would be hard pressed to name anything else in the grocery aisle that would make the challenge as zany as that hefty—we’ll guess 19 pounds—piece of produce.
The wonderful watermelon popped up many times over the years in the pages of LIFE, and in all kinds of settings. It was once even the centerpiece of a boozy beach blowout.
A 1948 story in LIFE carried the oh-so-tantalizing title Fun on the Beach: Summer Finds Americans Shedding Clothing and Inhibitions at Seaside. The watermelon was the star of the party, as revelers turned it into a vehicle for alcohol. One caption spoke enviously of the young people “stretching out and sipping spiked watermelon punch.” The photos here give rich documentation of the party people arriving at the San Diego beach with watermelons in tow, infusing the watermelons with alcohol, and then drinking from the watermelons as day turned to night.
LIFE has on more than one occasion gone to the farms to show where these mighty melons are harvested. LIFE staff photographers Wallace Kirkland, chronicler of so many scenes of American agriculture, took photos of a watermelon harvest in Illinois in the 1940s, and the legendary Loomis Dean documented workers in the fields of Imperial Valley in Califlornia, showing in one beautiful picture how the laborers formed a human conveyer belt to help get the melons into the back of a truck.
In 1960 LIFE applied a deliriously dramatic headline, “Major Melon Massace in Metuchen” to the story of a watermelon eating contest in New Jersey. A local real estate agency had sponsored the contest in an example of old-school brand building. The photos, in addition to showing cute kids chomping away, show how watermelons have evolved between then and now, because all those melons had the black mature seeds that have all but been eliminated from the product on sale in today’s grocery stores. (Seedless watermelons, a testimony to the power fo plant breeding, began to take over the market in the 1990s, ). At the New Jersey contest those black seeds inspired gamesmanship among contests who picked them out before the contest’s official start. The story closed with a quote from one boy who hadn’t. He complained, “I swallowed so many seeds I’m going to grow a watermelon patch in my stomach.”