The Pineapple of Perfection – An Historical Quest

Is, of course, a misquotation of that most magnificent word-mangler, Mrs. Malaprop who describes a fellow character in Sheridan’s The Rivals as being ‘the very pineapple of politeness!’

 

The Pineapple has a unique place in eighteenth century life culture, it was only a fruit but it came to symbolise luxury and hospitality, advanced technology and wild and savage lands, it is hardly surprising that some people held that it would cure the sick, and other that it would kill healthy people!

As European explorers visited more and more tropical lands during the sixteenth century they came across many strange animals and plants, gardeners were fascinated by the tales of the explorers and wanted to grow these newly discovered rarities. As men like John Tradescant explored Florida (guess what he discovered) in Europe architects were designing hothouses and stoves to try and keep these wonders alive, and this was where the Pineapple came in. Of all the tropical fruits discovered it was only the pineapple that could be kept alive using the primitive technology of the times, and not only could it be kept alive but it could fruit!

Charles II receiving a pineapple from John Rose, 1675 (picture from Wikipedia)

At first only Royalty could afford to grow pineapples, Charles II was painted receiving his first pineapple, but soon they became available to the very rich. At first they were known as Anana, a version of the native name, but were then called pineapples, because they looked a little like pineapples, and in due course the original pineapples were renamed pine cones.

Pineapples make a wonderful centrepiece and so they decorated the tables of the wealthy on grand occasions.

Morning Post – 23 June 1808

Indeed some enterprising fruiterers would rent out a pineapple for display, it could serve as a table decoration on several London dinner tables until it became too ripe, when it would be sold to be eaten.

As great houses began to grow pineapples themselves they wanted to celebrate their gardeners abilities, General Tilney in Northanger Abbey with very false modesty claimed that;

‘The pinery had yielded only one hundred in the last year.’

Pineapples began to appear on gate posts, a smug claim that the householder grew them, though in Scotland one landowner took this to extreme.

The Pineapple House at Dunmore (picture from Wikipedia)

As well as growing pineapples, some were imported, they rarely made it, as even a slight delay could lead to the fruit rotting. 

Stamford Mercury 24 August 1721

Though most of the pineapple imports were in the form of candied fruit or Pineapple Rum, which was very popular. If fruits could not be imported directly to Britain, it was different in the American colonies. Here the shorter sailing time from the West Indies meant that they could be readily available, indeed so popular were they that they became a symbol of hospitality, a pineapple on the table was a sign of welcome.

Also imported in great quantity to North America were candied pineapples, they had been diced then boiled in sugar to preserve them. Indeed candied fruits became virtually the sole sweetmeats served there, so much so that another case of language separation took place. In Britain the word ‘sweetmeats’ was shortened to ‘sweets’, whist in America ‘sweetmeats’ were forgotten all these sweet objects were called ‘candy’.

This unusual fruit naturally attracted the interests of doctors, who had violently opposing ideas. Those working in the West Indies, where the fruit grew, soon discovered that it was a very good at treating scurvy, so much so that pineapples were sent on board ships as soon as they arrived, for the benefit of any sick sailors. Perhaps this is the origin of Pineapple Rum, another alcoholic health drink.

Other doctors were less sure about the Pineapple,

The pineapple, the most pleasant of all fruit is the most dangerous. Its sharpness flays the mouth; and ‘tis easy to know what effect such a thing must have upon the stomach and bowels of persons weakened by age. I have known it bring on bloody fluxes, which have been fatal. (John Hill, The Old Man’s Guide to Health. 1750)

And tales were told of one young woman who died on her arrival in India of ‘injudiciously eating a pineapple.’

A fruit so valuable, it would obviously be a target for thieves, though I have only found a few cases of Pineapple theft.

Leeds Intelligencer 02 September 1777

Whilst the one case that came up at the Old Bailey will be another story.

 

This blog was inspired by Emma Theobald who asked me to write a note on the pineapple in the Georgian era for the Jane Austen Pineapple Appreciation Society.

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4 Comments

Filed under Georgian, Regency, Separated by a common language

4 responses to “The Pineapple of Perfection – An Historical Quest

  1. I rather like The Pineapple House at Dunmore is could maybe be a thistle? I know why it is a pineapple but it might be a thistle …being in Scotland! 🙂

    Like

  2. Pingback: The Pineapple Thief – A Georgian Tale | The Curious Archaeologist

  3. Jeff

    Hi, Gordon. Thank you so much for this research on the pineapple, its history, and its social connotations.

    I hope I have an interesting tidbit about pineapples to offer in return: I heard from a food historian, Francine Segan, that one of the ways in which a pineapple became associated with hospitality in Colonial America was that the presence of a real pineapple on a tavern porch, or on a post by the road, indicated that “their ship had come in” and, therefore, they had rum available for strong drinks. Thirsty travelers might find that a pleasant welcome, indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am glad you enjoyed it, you might like the next blog I made on the Pineapple Thief, a retelling of the story of the only case of pineapple theft to come before the Old Bailey.

      Like

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