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The Hidden History of the Housewarming Pineapple

One of the grander uses of a pineapple motif, at Dunmore House in Scotland. (Photo: Otter/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0

If you were rich 1700s nobleman, had a dinner table, and wanted to impress your fellow gentry, a pineapple would sure as hell be the way to go.

Indeed, if you find yourself at an old inn or perhaps even a new, trendy hotel, there will likely be a picture of a pineapple somewhere near you. It is a near-universal symbol of hospitality. But why? Thanks to centuries of pillaging and colonizing, the pineapple has traveled far and wide and come to represent something more than tasty fruit. Beyond merely being a symbol of welcoming, it has dark imperial roots to show.

A vintage illustration of a pineapple. (Photo: ArtsCult.com/flickr)

Up until the 15th century, pineapples were not known by the Western world. In South American countries like Brazil, they were grown and enjoyed by the locals, but few others outside these countries knew of the pineapple’s existence. Historical accounts claim that Christopher Columbus was the first European to come face to face with the fruit during his second voyage in 1493, when he and his crew found a Caribbean village that ate pineapple. They tried it and reportedly liked it quite a bit, deciding to bring it back to their European home.

The very concept of pineapples equating to hospitality, in fact, comes from these Caribbean trips, according to the World Encyclopedia of Food. Imperial travelers would go to these remote islands, and discovered that natives who hung the fruit in front of their entrances were welcoming to strangers.

A 1675 painting by Hendrik Danckerts, showung Charles II presented with the first pineapple grown in England. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

Thanks to their presence in front of villages and local huts, once they reached Europe pineapples became widely considered a gentry symbol of hospitality. The concept travelled to America too, where colonial houses began showcasing the pineapple’s image in common areas.  Plantations took up the trend and started carving pineapple-like shapes into columns at their entrances. This, in fact, became a well-known addition to entrance architecture.

The European bastardization of the pineapple symbol, however, meant more than just hospitality—it meant prestige. The richest of the rich bought these fruits, however expensive to show off to other their ability to have them. Since demand relied on the few shipments between the far-off continents, supply would often be scarce. This led to a brand new pineapple rental market taking the European gentry by storm, writes historian Mary V. Thompson. Although, by the 1700s, Europeans started growing them in their own hothouses. 

A pineapple adorns the front steps to a house in Greenwich Village, New York. (Photo: Spencer Means/flickr)

All the same, pineapples were considered an extravagance at the time. In America, one pineapple could be sold for as much as the equivalent of $8000,according to Mental Floss. Back in Europe the price was no less excessive, says the BBC, with a pineapple’s value reaching as much as the equivalent of £5,000. It became a trend for hostesses to show off the large spiny things in parlors and dining rooms.

Today pineapples are everywhere. But they’ve come to represent more than just exotic fruit. During the Napoleonic Era, political cartoonists would put pineapples in to represent extravagance. In the 1600s the Christian church adopted the symbol, as architect Christopher Wren began fitting them on church finials.

Pineapples remain a mainstay in the hospitality industry. The very first words of the hospitality handbook Welcome to Hospitality: An Introduction plainly claim that the “universal symbol for hospitality is the pineapple.” Colonial houses still have pictures of pineapples throughout the rooms, and hotels continue to show them off. In fact, the Maxwell Hotel in Seattle uses the pineapple as its very logo. The symbol persists as a homage to past table centerpieces and a relic of the colonial lifestyle.

Pineapples at the entrance of Simmons-Edwards House in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Spencer Means/flickr)

Despite this, the austere pineapple appeal has softened. Beyond a more abundant supply of the fruit, more people began adopting its aesthetic. Sailors, for instance, would bring the fruit home from their travels and place them on their home’s gateposts as a sign of welcoming. This, writes historian Nicola Cornick, led to the pineapple signifying “a sense of welcome, good cheer, warmth and celebration.” 

The next time you take a bite out of the fruit, think of its imperial past. What began as a treat for the rich—one which a Royal botanist described as “being so sweete in smell... tasting... as if Wine, Rosewater and Sugar were mixed together” in 1640—has become something more common and hospitable. 

Although if you were to ask the non-gentry their thoughts on pineapples in the 1600s, they probably wouldn’t feel so welcome.