For the well-to-do Victorian, there were few things more off-putting than a curvy cucumber. Only aesthetically pleasing fruits made it to the table, while crooked cukes would often be tossed to the hogs. Straighter cucumbers also proved to be better fodder for the thin slices that would be slipped into the quintessential royal teatime snack: the cucumber sandwich. But growing straight cucumbers wasn’t always easy. Factors ranging from humidity to poor pollination could cause a young cucurbits to curl.
But one man wasn’t willing to leave the shape of his cukes up to fate. Civil engineer George Stephenson, also known as the “Father of the Railway” for his work with early British locomotives, was also a fervent gardener. He had seen success growing melons, grapes, and pines, but was having difficulty getting his cucumbers to straighten out. Frustrated by their relentless bending, he took matters to his Newcastle factory, where he manufactured the first cucumber straightener.
The device was relatively simple: The straightener was, more or less, a giant glass tube with a small opening at the top. Once the cucumber began to grow, gardeners would slip the vine through the small hole so the cucumber hung vertically inside its huge, phallic, transparent brace.
The straightener gained popularity among upper-class gardeners, and was likely used for cucumber competitions. But they were costly, labor-intensive (each straightener was blown), and perhaps not entirely necessary. Eventually, they were replaced by vertical farming and the less-bendy varietals of cucumbers we use today.
Though cucumber straighteners may have disappeared, the craving for uncurving cukes has not. Until 2008, European Union regulations required all Class I cucumbers sold to be “practically straight,” and “bent with a gradient of no more than 1/10.”
Need to Know
You likely won't find cucumber straighteners swinging from trellises across England anymore. To meet one in person, your best bet is to look for gardening museums, or private collections such as Mark Morrison's Private Gallery of Vintage Garden Tools in Dutchess County, New York.
Try It on an Atlas Obscura Trip
Folklore and Magic of Southern England
Mythical castles and ancient witchcraft, ecological biomes and fairy-tale forests, sea tractors and flaming tar barrels—all this awaits you on our one-of-a-kind exploration of southern England's historic haunts and eccentric traditions.