If you go to a supermarket in a developed country today, then you will find aisles upon aisles of fresh fruit and vegetables imported from all over the world. Carrots, potatoes, broccoli, lettuce, apples, bananas, pears, peppers, avocado, lychees, pineapples. A whole pineapple will usually set you back about £1 in the UK. Whilst pineapples are still looked upon as a nice fruit that may not quite be for every day consumption (and can even lead to heated debates about its placement on a pizza), many will be surprised to hear that just a few hundred years ago pineapples were one of the most revered items in Western culture.
Decorative stone pineapples still adorn many houses today. Via Haddonstone.
The pineapple was first knowingly laid eyes upon by Westerners in 1493 by Christopher Columbus and his crew in Guadeloupe. The fruit is believed to have originated in Brazil, but the Native American civilisations of South America had transported it across the Continent and later to the Caribbean and Central America in previous centuries. Columbus was astonished by the flavour of the fruit and managed to bring some specimens back to Spain with him.
Across the next century, the Western Imperial powers spread the pineapple across the world to their colonies in warmer climes. The Spanish spread it to the Philippines, Hawaii, Zimbabwe and Guam, whilst the Portuguese introduced it to India. Whilst some of the wealthiest in Europe managed to taste the fruit, most of the pineapples had rotted in the time it took to sail from South America to Europe. This was the source of great frustration.
As such, by the 1600s, Kings and Queens across Europe charged their gardeners to find ways to grow the fruit in the more temperate climate of their homelands. It is unclear who was first successful in this task. Historian Francesca Beauman suggests that the pineapple in the estate of Agnes Block in Vijverhof, modern-day Belgium, in 1685 was the first to have been grown in Europe. Although some small-scale or one-off pineapple farming attempts were successful in the seventeenth century, it was not until the next century that techniques were truly refined to allow reliable farming of the fruit.
Agnes Block and her family at their summer home Vijverhof, 1694. To the left, a cultivated pineapple is seen growing. WikiCommons.
Hot houses were created to produce the correct temperature. Similar to greenhouses, the hot houses would often use manure or Tanner’s bark – the ground bark of the oak tree – to generate heat. This was enough to maintain a temperature of around 27C , sufficient to grow the pineapples. Now that pineapples could be grown in Europe, instead of imported unreliably (although they continued to do so), the demand that had been waiting for centuries exploded. Everybody who was anybody wanted a piece.
Royalty of course came top of the list. Between 1675 and 1680, Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland had a portrait painted showing him being presented with a pineapple by a man believed to be his royal gardener. It was said that this was the first pineapple grown in England, although historians are sceptical due to the early date, believing it was more likely to have been imported. In the 18th century, however, royalty across Europe were successful in growing the fruit.
Charles II Presented with a Pineapple c.1675-80, unknown artist. Royal Collection Trust.
In 1733, Louis XV of France was presented with a pineapple grown in the gardens of Versaille. He was so happy with the taste of it that he sent a piece to every noble in the country so they could taste it for themselves. By 1738, a hot house was built at the palace which was soon growing over 800 plants. In 1782, the Duke of Bouillon’s home in France supposedly had 4000 pots of pineapples. At the end of the century, even Catherine the Great of Russia was eating pineapples from her own gardens.
As was so often the case, it did not take long for the nobility to try and emulate the wealth and opulence of royalty. In 1761 John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, built a hothouse at his home in Dunmore Park, Scotland. Heat was provided using a furnace which circulated hot air through cavities in the wall. By 1776, if not earlier, Murray had the hot house decorated with a huge pineapple carved from stone 14 metres high.
In the 1700s, the popularity of dinner parties as a social past time exploded. For the upper echelons of society, having a pineapple as a centre piece of your banquet table exemplified your extreme wealth. Purchasing a pineapple could cost thousands of pounds at a time when the majority of families earned less than £50 a year (source). If you had a pineapple at a dinner party, it meant that you were wealthy enough to have bought one imported from abroad, or had the wealth and means to build your own hot houses and pay all the expenses related to its upkeep. Either way, you would ensure jaw-dropping by your guests if you revealed one. At one dinner held by Lord Petre at his estate in Essex, the doors were opened to show a liveried footman carrying not just one, but a pile of pineapples upon a silver tray. This was one of the greatest displays of wealth anyone could show.
The Dunmore Pineapple, commissioned by John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore. National Trust for Scotland.
Eventually, the middle classes wanted to take part in the action, but they simply could not afford the extortionate prices for the fruit. So some industrious entrepreneurs came up with a solution. Only royalty and the wealthiest of the wealthy were actually able to afford to eat pineapples, with everyone else simply preserving them for display. As such, businessmen started to rent out the pineapples that they were growing. Those who could not afford to buy a pineapple could rent one for an evening if they were hosting a party. They could therefore display it, showing their guests how rich they had become, and then discretely returned the pineapple afterwards. The businessmen would rent out the pineapples for many days until the fruit was on the turn, at which point it would be sold on to the upper nobility for consumption.
Pineapple fever penetrated all levels of society, and this soon was reflected in architecture and household goods. Murray’s giant pineapple hot house is one extreme example, but many homes began to use pineapples as a decorative motif. Even today, many homes across the West can be seen with carved stone pineapples on their gates or outside their front doors. Many do not even realise that this is what they are supposed to represent. Pineapples were used to decorate furniture from this period and beyond. Below is a silver side table dating to 1699 made for William III of England, Scotland and Ireland which prominently features the fruit at the crossing point of the stretchers. Beneath that is a Regency piano stool from the UK created around 1820 which has a pineapple pattern across the fabric.
The popularity of pineapples continued into the Victorian period when its cultivation was aided greatly by industrialisation. The invention of hot water heating and sheet glass alongside the abolition of glass tax in Britain meant that huge greenhouses could now be built to house as many pineapples as possible. Pineapples were still expensive, but were becoming more widely available due to the huge scale they were now being produced on. The skill and wealth now came from being able to cultivate the largest possible pineapple and those of the highest quality. Many featured prominently in horticultural shows.
With the advent of the 20th century, however, pineapples finally lost their 400 year-long charm. Techniques for importing food from abroad in good condition meant that there was less of a demand for home-grown produce. The start of the First World War halted most types of luxurious produce being farmed on any sizeable scale. In the second half of the century, the popularity of canned food for new supermarkets and a society that wanted convenience food meant that pineapple found a new popularity in chopped and tinned form. Today, pineapples are still a very popular fruit. With 21st-century globalisation and the plethora of fruit that is available at our fingertips, the pineapple is never going to regain its place as the most desired of all produce. It certainly can, however, be proud in the impact it had on Western society and the world beyond.
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The Pineapple: King of Fruits by Francesca Beauman