Do you like Pineapples? I don’t know about you but I don’t really like them at all. They burn my tongue which is as good a reason as any not to like a food but there was a time when the lowly Pineapple was about the most desirable object one could own and it’s not just because they didn’t eat them.
These days fancy jewellery, nice cars, houses filled maybe with art of flashy gadgets are a sign that you have made it but for around 250 years all of this meant nothing in comparison to the the pineapple.
Being next to impossible to grow in Britain at the time, the tough old fruit was far too valuable to eat and would be worth thousands of pounds.
A roaring trade in pineapple rental developed, where ambitious but less well-off folk might hire one for a special event, dinner party or even just to jauntily tuck under an arm on a show-off stroll in a manner we might rent a car for a wedding but never actually dream of owning a Rolls Royce or a Bentley. In fact the same pineapple would be paraded from event to event for months on end, maybe even a year or two until it eventually went rotten. It didn’t matter too much, you could impress your friends because you were wealthy enough to have a mushy 8 month old pineapple on your dining table.
In fact sometimes this has been used to tell a moral in a story such as in a television adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished Regency novel Sanditon, wherein Lady Denham’s grand luncheon has a pineapple proudly on display which is then cut to reveal that inside is full of maggots and so demonstrating the vast wealth of the character but also the transitory nature of the status symbol.
Nevertheless by the 1770s, “a pineapple of the finest flavour” became a phrase used for anything that was the best of the best.
The idea that pine apples (as they used to be known) are somehow associated with wealth and status is fairly well known for those of us who are familiar with British history. Visit many a stately home in the country and you can fine Pineapples engravedon corbels and finials across these islands, remnants of a time when keeping up with the neighbours meant throwing lavish parties and displaying one’s riches.
The 16th and 17th Centuries saw a number of exotic foods brought back to Europe from the New World and Asia and the pineapple became the one most associated with prestige and luxury.
A possible reason for this is that the pineapple was previously unknown in the Old World, so it was free of the cultural resonances of other fruits, which enabled people to create new meanings from it.
My favourite fruit is the humble apple but if I was alive in the 18th century it would have long connotations with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, while pomegranate seeds kept the Greek goddess Persephone in the underworld for half the year.
With pineapple’s there was none of that and having a kind of crown on top allowed it to be taken as the symbolic manifestation of the divine right of kings. It even gained the nickname of King Pine and given its scarcity and expense, naturally real life kings were all too keen to get a piece of the action.
Charles II was so taken with pineapples that he commissioned a portrait of himself being presented with one, incidentally thought by some to be the first one grown in the country.
Those clever Georgian began to grow them in Britain and whilst having to wait months for a pineapple to arrive from the tropics was hugely exclusive; being rich enough to grow them in heated green houses with a dedicated staff that could cultivate them was something else.
The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1764 estimated that it cost £150 (according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, roughly equivalent today to £28,000) to build a hothouse, cover the annual running costs and buy the plant stock. And this expense was not guaranteed to give any return and so when you think much of the country was surviving on pennies it makes a diamond encrusted limousine seem positively affordable by our standards.
At first they tried growing them in Orangeries but they weren’t light enough inside and so greenhouses were established. Heating in glasshouses during the mid 17th Century was provided by furnaces placed within the structure, but fumes often damaged or killed the plants and so later, ‘fire walls’ were heated by hot air rising from furnaces or stoves which required constant stoking with coal. Obviously not only was this expensive but it carried the risk of the fire getting out of control and burning that £28,000 down to the ground.
On top of the risks of one’s pineapple investments going up in smoke, it took several years for the fruit to bloom. A pineapple which had overcome all those hurdles was scarce enough to be valued at £60 (roughly £11,000 in todays money). It was even better if it had shoots and leaves still on it as this made it clear that it was grown at home.
Given all of this, it is understandable why Pineapples weren’t widely eaten as it would be a huge waste of money to simply eat it and so owners displayed pineapples as dinnertime ornaments on special plates which would allow the pineapple to be seen and admired but surrounded by other, cheaper, fruit for eating.
These pineapples were expensive enough to warrant their very security guards, and those who transported them were considered to be at great risk of being targeted by thieves and people were sent off on prisoner transports to Australia for stealing them.
Because the middle classes were anxious to get hold of pineapples but could not afford to cultivate or buy them with pineapple rental shops businesses opening across the country. Companies began to cash in on the fruit’s popularity and as with many crazes, the market for pineapple-themed goods exploded.
Porcelain-makers such as Wedgwood started producing pineapple-shaped teapots and jelly moulds and one might have wanted to have ornately carved clock cases or bookends featuring pineapples around the house.
Outdoors, the pineapple was represented on carriages and garden temples. After all, if the fruit itself would not last, carved-stone pineapples on plinths would certainly be a lasting reminder to guests and passers-by of the wealth within a manor house.
What brought about the demise of the Pineapple cult? It started with the invention and widespread use of Steamships that began to import the fruit from colonies around the world which made the prices drop until just like the designer brand Burberry hit problems when its designer clothing became the uniform of Chavs; Pineapples became not just affordable to the middle class but shockingly to the working class too.
Once the luxurious fruit had gone from the Kings table to wheelbarrows and stalls in working class city markets then its cachet evaporated! In fact working-class people eating pineapples even became used in satirical prints as a visual metaphor for the problem of progress!
Eventually pineapples were tinned and reached a new zenith in 1970’s dinner parties along with gammon, Babycham and black-forest gateau.
I’m not sure if pineapples would have become any sort of status symbol at all if people were rich enough to actually eat them, or indeed open them out of a tin-can though at least I guess they wouldn’t go rotten after a few months.
For a totally different tale of wealth, why not take a peak at Musa I of Mali – The richest man you may never have heard of