The rise and fall of the pineapple as a sign of social status

It may seem strange to picture the humble pineapple as a signal of social standing, but for about two hundred years, in the 1600s and 1700s, it was exactly that. The trend seems to have started after pineapples were brought back by explorers from tropical climates, and then rich folk throughout Britain started growing them and displaying the results on their tables, to the point where the pineapple became a symbol of wealth. A hothouse-grown pineapple cost about £60, or roughly £11,000 in today’s terms, and plates decorated with leaves and pineapple symbols were created to hold them so they could be displayed as a centerpiece. King Charles II even commissioned a painting of himself being presented with a pineapple at court, reportedly the first such fruit grown on British soil (although other reports say it was brought back as a juvenile and ripened in Britain).

Concerned about wasting such high-value fruit by eating it, 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 security guards, and maids who transported them were considered to be at great risk of being targeted by thieves. The 1807 Proceedings of the Old Bailey show several cases for pineapple theft, Dr O’Hagan points out, including that of a Mr Godding who was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for stealing seven pineapples.

Because the ever-aspiring middle classes were anxious to get their mitts on the fruit but could not afford to cultivate or buy them, canny businessmen opened pineapple rental shops across Britain, according to a history from the BBC. Companies began to cash in on the fruit’s popularity and as with many crazes, the market for pineapple-themed goods exploded. Porcelain-makers Minton and Wedgwood started producing pineapple-shaped teapots, ewers and jelly moulds. Ornately carved clock cases, bookends and paintings extended the trend from the dining table to other rooms in the house. But eventually, steamships started bringing tropical fruit to Europe in great enough numbers that pineapples were no longer scarce, and prices dropped to the point where anyone could have one — even poor people.

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