In the New England region of America, it’s not an uncommon sight to see a wooden welcome sign at the end of a driveway, emblazoned with a sculpted and gilded pineapple. I’ve seen probably dozens of these gilded pineapple welcome signs in upstate New York and Connecticut. I’m sure Maine and Massachusetts are full of them too (though I’ve never been there in person to confirm this suspicion). The pineapple is a beautiful symbol, but I always wondered how a tropical fruit came to be such a ubiquitous symbol in a part of the world better known for maple sapping, cold winters and autumn colours. A little research revealed an interesting story.
It’s widely known that a pineapple is a symbol of hospitality. But why a pineapple? Couldn’t an apple (or, anything edible, for that matter) represent hospitality just as well? Some research revealed a fascinating story of a fruit and its symbolism. Pineapple welcome signs are just a small part of this story.
To fully understand why pineapples are the ‘welcome fruit’, let’s look at the history of the fruit itself. It originated in South America, on the border of present-day Brazil and Paraguay where it was bred by the native peoples. From there it spread to the coast, and then to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. The first European to taste a pineapple was Christopher Columbus when, in 1493, the Callinago Indians introduced him to the fruit. (Okihiro, Interview)
Once Columbus got his hands on it, it wasn’t long before his sponsor, King Ferdinand of Spain, had tasted it too. In fact, as Karen Hursh Graber (2008) wrote, “King Ferdinand, upon being presented the only pineapple in a 1516 shipment to Spain that made the journey without spoiling, said it was the best thing he had ever tasted.” Soon pineapples were a much sought-after delicacy and status symbol in Europe. The fruit was so rare, however, that it was shrouded in myth and rumor. In an influential work on the flora of the Americas of 1578, Christopher de Acosta asserted that if you stuck a knife into a pineapple for more than half an hour, the blade would dissolve (Beauman, Fran 71). In fact, this claim is utterly false (try it). The myth shows, however, that there was no lack of speculation and intrigue surrounding the newly-discovered fruit.
While it may not dissolve steel, the pineapple does have a distinct and exotic flavor, described in 1640 by John Parkinson, Royal Botanist to Charles I as: “…being so sweete in smell… tasting… as if Wine, Rosewater & Sugar were mixed together.” (Theatrum Botanicum) This, and similar reviews of the day led to a flurry of attempts to cultivate the fruit in the glasshouses of Europe. However, it took some time before Europeans were able to perfect the art of cold-climate pineapple cultivation. It is no surprise then that the pineapple soon became a symbol of wealth and opulence.
The wealthy and powerful classes of America and Europe alike, in exhibits of privilege, reserved for themselves commodities – rare, expensive, and desirable – from far off places. The pineapple was not simply a delicious fruit, the “princess of all fruits” came to symbolize the tropics, the Orient in opulence, leisure, a terrestrial paradise. Its possession accordingly meant the attainment of social standing and its trappings. – (Okihiro, 88)
Strange as it may seem in today’s globalised economy, a pineapple – in those days – was such an emblem of affluence that sometimes a single fruit was rented several times for various parties, banquets and dinners. It would be used as the centrepiece – an apex of a mound of fruits of various kinds (Okihiro 89). This practice, in turn led, European artists and craftsmen to embellish ceramic dinnerware, silverware, and other table pieces such as napkin holders and candle holders with the depiction of a pineapple.
Prior to the American Revolution, the upper classes in the New World kept a close eye on the fashions in the old country. Hence, pineapple tea sets and similar artefacts soon made their way across the Atlantic to fill colonial homes. Being a fruit of ‘the Americas’, it may have been the patriotism of the early colonists that made the pineapple even more of a popular and long-lasting motif in the thirteen colonies than back in England.
All this explains how the pineapple became a prized sign of wealth. How is it then a symbol of hospitality and welcome? One oft-repeated story is that New England sailors returning home from long voyages in the West Indies would bring with them a fresh pineapple and place it on their gatepost or at the entrance to their house signifying that visitors would now be welcome. This practice had apparently been brought back with them from their travels. Was this the origin of the pineapple welcome sign? It’s a possibility, though there is no confirming evidence that indicates this. And, in fact, it’s doubtful that such a treasured fruit would simply be left unattended on a gatepost. Another theory surmises that – being an icon of expense and rarity – the pineapple was accordingly a sign of bountiful hospitality.
To give the pineapple as a gift conveys your intention to promote friendliness and graciousness to the recipient. – (Romilla, D.)
Clearly, to give of one’s best carries with it the essence of friendship and respect. If one is offered such an expensive luxury – seeped in the time honored symbolism of wealth – it would be amply clear in what sense the gift is being given. The hospitality shown by such a gesture would be self-evident.
To offer a slice of pineapple to a visitor was eloquently to express real respect or affection for them, and if the pineapple had connotations of hospitality (a vital tenet of colonial society), this is where they came from. (Beauman, F., 135).
The cities of Europe were well-furnished with theatres, racecourses and a myriad of entertainment options for the elite classes. In contrast, colonial American towns were relatively simple places, and the main form of entertainment consisted in inviting friends over and throwing lavish dinner parties. Hospitality was held in high regard in early American society. It was inevitable then, as the New World became slowly settled, that the pineapple symbol would weave itself into the fabric of the colonial United States. It was no stranger to the woodcarvers of New England either. A hand-carved pineapple was just as likely to embellish a Nantucket quarterboard-sign as was a scallop-shell or whale.
A tenacious tradition has the resilience to abide centuries of changing times and customs. Although pineapple tea sets and snuff-boxes have had their day, the pineapple welcome sign remains a common fixture of the historic American home. I have a new appreciation for the sculpted and gilded pineapples I see as I drive through Upstate New York and Connecticut. Through a long and convoluted series of events, this spiky South American fruit has come to symbolise hospitality and welcome in the land of maple syrup and covered bridges.
Being a carving shop, we’re no stranger to pineapple welcome signs either. Here are a few that we’ve done:
Beauman, Fran. The Pineapple: King of Fruits. Great Britain: Chatto & Windus, 2005. Print.
Karen Hursh Graber. “The Pineapple: Sweet Symbol of the Tropics.” Mexconnect.com. Web. 2009
Okihiro, Gary Y. Interview with ROROTOKO. “Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones.” ROROTOKO. Web. 12 August 2009.
Okihiro, Gary Y. Pineapple Culture: A History of the Tropical and Temperate Zones London: University of California Press, 2009. Print
Parkinson, John. Theatrum Botanicum. London: 1640. Print.
Romilla D. “What does the Pineapple Symbolize?” decoratkaccents.wordpress.com. Web. 28 September 2008.