Friday 30 March 2018

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick - Fashionable Fruit: the craze for pineapples

Pineapples are having a fashion moment. Everywhere I look, I seem to see them: on clothes, jewellery and homewares, from shoes to jumpers, necklaces to candle-holders, pots and knick-knacks. It isn’t hard to see why. They are immediately recognisable, brightly coloured and – at this drab end of winter - evoke tropical sunshine and exotic locations. As a design feature, what’s not to love?

It isn’t the first time the pineapple has been at the centre of fashion. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century there was a craze for the ‘king of fruits’ – and the reasons for it were very different from today.

Dunmore Pineapple
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Pineapples originated in South America. They were cultivated very early, due to the fact that in the right conditions they will fruit all year around. Early western explorers brought them back to Europe – and across to other tropical regions, where they quickly spread - as an example of the abundance and exciting discoveries of the New World. During the seventeenth century, such was their rarity that they were given to royalty as gifts. The symbolism around them – as the king or queen of fruits, as a representation of a new Eden, or of a new tempting ‘apple’, even associations in Catholic countries with the Virgin Mary – quickly grew, as did their reputation as the most delicious of all fruits.

By the early eighteenth century, the quest was on to grow pineapples in Europe. This was difficult – they need a constant tropical air and soil temperature to thrive, and the technology was not initially available. This changed with the development of hothouses, initially in the Netherlands. These swiftly spread across Europe and by the middle of the eighteenth century, it was fashionable for rich aristocrats to have their own ‘pinery’.

C18th Wedgewood tea canister, pineapple design.
Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
No-where, it seems, was this trend more pronounced than in England. A movement towards conspicuous consumption meant that pineapples became the ultimate in luxury. Hothouses were incredibly expensive to build and expert gardeners were needed to nurture the delicate plants over the two-three years it took for them to fruit. In the eighteenth century, it was estimated that the “the average total cost of the cultivation of just one pineapple was about £80 (nearly £5000 today) – about the cost of a new coach.”*

Pineapples became a necessity at the grandest dinner parties and country-house gatherings, crowning a pyramid of fruit as a mighty centrepiece. But such was their expense that they were often left intact, not eaten, and re-used over several weeks until they started to rot. In some places, it was even possible to hire a pineapple if you wanted to impress your guests, although of course it was much better if you could take them on a genteel tour of your very own hothouse.

The craze for pineapples went further than just for the fruit itself. They swiftly became used in all sorts of places, on items as diverse as clothing, reticules (small handbags), snuffboxes, wallpaper and crockery. Having your portrait painted with a pineapple also seems to have been a popular choice, as the example below from the Cwmmau Farmhouse, owned by the National Trust, shows.

Gentleman proudly holding his pineapple,
Cwmmau Farmhouse, National Trust.
Photo: author's own
The motif became embedded into architecture, with stone pineapples often decorating the tops of pillars and gates, especially at the entrances to grand stately homes. No-where is this shown more clearly than in the mighty Dunmore Pineapple (which can now be rented as a holiday cottage from the Landmark Trust!) This has led to the supposition that the pineapple was seen as a symbol of hospitality, although Fran Beauman convincingly argues in her 2005 book ‘The Pineapple: King of Fruits’ that for many it was much more about asserting status and conspicuous consumption than hospitality per se.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the first imported pineapples started to appear, at much lower prices than the home-grown version. Although this meant that a taste of the fruit was within the reach of a middle-class household for the first time, the fruit was often in poor condition and English pineapples remained a true luxury item for the time being. The advent of refrigerated shipping and improved canning methods towards the end of the century and in the early years of the twentieth, however, spelled the end for the pineapple as a symbol of social cachet.

* Fran Beauman, The Pineapple: King of Fruits (2005, Vintage)

1 comment:

Janie Hampton said...

My sister Rachel Anderson wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called 'Pineapple' , published by Cape in 1964. Pineapple was a beatnik art student (aka another sister). The novel popularized the word 'zymotic'.