The other day, I asked myself why I place fruit in a bowl that I then display in the center of my dining table. What audience am I addressing with my seemingly nonsense display of apples, pears and oranges, apart from myself and the occasional guests I invite to my flat?
Unearthing a tongue-in-cheek dinner anecdote from Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife or Ménagère (1849) made me rethink my bemusement towards my rather inconspicuous display of fruity edibles. One fruit in particular – the pineapple, a familiar sight in households nowadays – enjoyed a rather lofty status in England in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries. So revered was it, that it was gossiped about as if it were a bona fide socialite, and enjoyed the best seat at some of the most prestigious social gatherings.
“And, talk about pine-apples,” said he, “many times I have had the pleasure of meeting with the same, and even as often as twice in less than twelve hours, quite in a different direction, that is, on a dinner-table in the west-end about eight in the evening, and, at midnight, on the supper-table of a civic ball; at dinner being perched on an elevated stand in the centre of a large wide table, so much out of reach that it would almost require a small ladder to get at it; and I must say that every guest present paid due respect to his high position, and never made an assault, or even an attempt to disturb, much less to uncompliment, would remark to the Amphitrion, that she never saw in her life a finer pine-apple. ‘Very fine, very fine, indeed, madam! will you allow me to offer you part of an orange?’ ‘Not any more, I thank you, sir,’ being the reply.”
The above quotation clearly illustrates the hierarchy that separated pineapples from its citrus counterpart. Although this paragraph is from a nineteenth century publication, it describes the practice of hiring pineapples as centrepieces for social events that was already common in the eighteenth century. The pineapple was so rare and expensive a commodity that only ‘the most impressive specimens made the rounds of urban dinner parties for weeks at a time, only finally consumed once they had begun to rot’. .
Having a real pineapple at a dinner table was impressive, but displaying an ‘inanimate’ material substitute of it was equally loaded with meaning. It was during the eighteenth century that a range of porcelain ware was created and became popular, with the pineapple as an ornamental focus.
The Victoria and Albert Museum collection has some spectacular examples of earthenware teapots from the 1760s shaped and glazed in imitation of pineapples, as well as other pineapple-inspired objects.
Wallpaper with pineapple motifs once decorated the walls of a room in Sir Joshua Reynolds’ London home.
A pineapple crowns this lead-glazed earthenware centrepiece that may have been used to display sweetmeats. I appreciate the strategic arrangement of the different elements of this piece which culminates with a pineapple sitting quite sovereignly at its tip.
The following piece by English maker Spode dates back to about 1820, and is described as a pineapple stand with a receptacle in the middle that held the woody stalk of a pineapple, so that the pineapple itself could stand upright. Slices of another pineapple or other fruit would then be placed around it.
The existence of these objects proves that the pineapple’s status was not just consumed by eating it, but that its material representation was a way in which contemporaries partook in its high status. Its extreme rarity and expense gave expression to objects that sought to multiply its presence until international pineapple imports and the development of the canning industry during the nineteenth century turned the pineapple into a more common, and above all, affordable sight.
The history of the pineapple is incredibly diverse and is a real treat for any botany, horticulture, food or trade history enthusiast, with plenty of room to expand existing scholarly writings into the realm of material culture. The pineapple craze was not only expressed through ceramic objects like the ones presented here, but a range of glasshouses was especially designed for the cultivation of this particular fruit in seasonal countries like England. The study of these hothouses through plans, drawings and gardening manuals from the seventeenth century onwards could make an enriching addition to this column.
In other words, if you have a passion for pineapples (or any other fruit!) and material culture then this is the platform for you and your work.
 Alexis Soyer, The Modern Housewife or Ménagère, (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & co., 1849), p.367
 Fran Beauman, The Pineapple: King of Fruits, (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), p. xii
 Victoria and Albert Museum public access description for the pineapple stand by Spode, c. 1820, museum number: 385-1899
Fran Beauman, The Pineapple: King of Fruits, (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005)
Kate Colquhoun, Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking, (London: Bloomsbury, 2007)
Alexis Soyer, The Modern Housewife or Ménagère, (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & co., 1849)
OBJECT SOURCES from the Victoria and Albert Museum public access records
‘Teapot and cover’ by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, 1760-1765, England. Earthenware with a lead glaze stained with metal oxides and moulded.
Museum number: 414:1069/&A-1885
‘Teapot’, 1760 (made), possibly by Edward Warburton. Lead-glazed earthenware. Museum number: 414:1068/&A-1885
Wallpaper fragment with a pineapple design, from Sir Joshua Reynolds’ house, Leicester Square, London, mid-18th century. Museum number: E.468-1937
‘Centrepiece’, 1790, Josiah Wedgwood & Sons. Museum number: 2336-1901
‘Pineapple stand’, 1820. Maker: Spode (Stoke-on-Trent, England). Museum number: 385-1899.
Zenia Malmer –
Zenia graduated from Oxford Brookes University with a degree in English and Arts Management. She worked at the Ministry of Culture in Luxembourg as a project coordinator for three years before embarking on the History of Design course. Her current research interests lie at the intersection of food and design history: from the nineteenth-century tools and technologies designed to make smooth and creamy ice cream, to figuring out how Baumkuchen got its distinctive shape.
© Zenia Malmer, 2013. All Rights Reserved.