When you see a pineapple at the store these days, it might be on sale for less than a dollar or cut up and sold in a plastic tub as a value-added item. You might think of the health benefits–low calorie with plenty of fiber, Vitamin C, and bone building manganese.
You probably don’t consider that between two -four hundred years ago, this fruit was the ultimate in snob appeal. Because they were trendy in his lifetime, I had King William IV carry pineapples in Wolves and Deer. I knew pineapples were a status symbol and grown in hothouses or imported by steamships from tropical British colonies. Thanks to a delightful article in The Week, I became more familiar with the crazy history of this fruit in Europe.
Apparently the pineapple was one bit of “gold” that Columbus brought to Europe. Only one pineapple made the trip without rotting but that was enough. It was praised for its sweetness, its resemblance to a pinecone, and the crown-like spiked leaves at the top. It had no stigma such as the ill-fated Biblical apple. Only the upper class had ever seen or tasted such a treat. It was royal, pure, and a testament to the Divine Right of Kings. Apparently, people were more into symbolism back then than your favorite literature professor.
It was Charles the second in the 1660s who seized upon this fruit with unbridled enthusiasm, putting it in jellies and serving a pineapple at royal dinners to impress foreign dignitaries. Around 1688, Leiden area resident Agnes Block became first gardener to grow one in the north. A frenzy ensued. The Dutch developed greenhouses to grow the tropical fruits. One pineapple was worth thousands of dollars in labor and in coal–the fuel of the day. They were so costly they became ornaments instead of food.
In the Georgian era (when William’s father was king), pineapples were both imported and grown by aristocrats. People used the word “pineapple” to mean something with quality such as “you are a pineapple of a person.” The most commonly used pineapple phrase was “a pineapple of the finest flavor.” Pineapples became part of dining and decor. The Wedgwoods (Charles Darwin’s kin) made pineapple table wear. Pineapples were seen on furniture. To quote the previously mentioned article
“Carved-stone pineapples appeared on plinths outside grand manor houses, pronouncing to passersby the largesse and high standing of the family within. They adorned carriages, topped garden temples, figured in countless paintings, and were turned into enormous sculptures gracing country gardens. Pineapples had become synonymous with good taste, nobility, and limitless wealth.”
In 1816, a breakthrough in heating occurred–the advent of steam heat. This made pineapples less costly to grow. Their popularity continued even though a few more people could now afford them.
When William became King in 1831, pineapples were becoming more common. I read Diaries of Charles Greville as a source for Wolves and Deer and he mentions that William’s head was the shape of a pineapple. The context did not make it sound like a compliment. It was a way of explaining William’s lack of intellect. Apparently, by the 1830s, right before Victoria wore the crown, the pineapple was a fading status symbol, but still a sign of wealth. Estates in Britain all had a “pinery” near the kitchen to grow the fruits year around. Horticultural societies still clung to their status and producing humungous pineapples became the Victorian rage. You can read about the cultivation here. By World War I, James Dole had developed pineapple plantations in Hawaii. Pineapple cultivation in England came to an end and sadly, many varieties of pineapples were lost–including ones that were pyramidal in shape– because they didn’t fit neatly into cans as was important for commercial production of pineapple.
Currently, pineapple decor is kitschy-trendy.
The fruit is most popular in the United States with around 40% of consumers buying pineapple in a given year. A pineapple costs around $2.50 on average. That’s a -320,000% drop from its all time high. So if you find yourself longing for a luxury item, keep in mind–not everything deserves the hype and even the most lofty trend will come to an end.