Stupid Question ™
Aug. 25, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Is it true the pineapple is a symbol of welcome, and if so, why?
—anonymous, Columbus, Ohio
A: There’s no doubt the scaly, spiny fruit has been a symbol of hospitality, friendship and welcome for about 350 years.
Among other evidence, you can find decorative ceramics from the 1600s that bear a stylized pineapple and phrases like, “Welcome, my friends.”
Pineapple carvings and stencils were similarly popular on Colonial doors and entryways.
The symbolism goes back to a time when pineapples were very rare extravagances, and thus a real coup to offer up at a house party or dinner. Theoretically, it showed you cared—though most likely it also meant you wanted to impress the socks off of your guests.
Christopher Columbus’ crew appears to have been the first Europeans to come across pineapples, encountering them in the Caribbean in 1493. The fruit was immediately noted as remarkable for its sweetness and its bizarre appearance.
However, it apparently was not cultivated by Europeans until about 150 years later. Obviously, it’s hard to grow in a northern climate. The first successful cultivation seems to have been pulled off around 1640.
Pineapples weren’t just hard to cultivate; they were hard to preserve. Without refrigeration, and in an era of relatively slow ocean travel, they often did not survive the trip back to Europe. Later, the shipping of preserved bits of pineapple became fairly common, but bringing back a whole, fresh fruit was almost out of the question. Between these two difficulties, pineapples were therefore extremely rare.
Coincidentally, the same era in Britain and the American colonies was marked by regular house visits among members of the gentry. Hosts were expected to put on an impressive spread, often involving some kind of food centerpiece. Fruit of all kinds, as a general rarity, was popular for this purpose. The pineapple, naturally, became the most desirable of all.
Scoring a pineapple for your party was such a big deal that the fruits were reportedly rented out in Colonial America. In any case, the pineapple became a symbol due to its impressive extravagance and its intriguing form.
Lest all of this be too straightforward, some authors have inserted bizarre alternative theories into the mix.
A favorite is that the symbol began in the American colonies when sea captains brought pineapples back and put them on posts outside their houses to indicate their return. Since the fruits were so rare, this supposed behavior seems not only unlikely but insane. (This story is usually localized; it becomes “whaling captains” on Cape Cod, for example.)
Others say it was the Carib tribe of Native Americans themselves who used pineapples as hospitality tokens, and Columbus’ men returned the custom to Europe. But the custom actually dates to the period when cultivation succeeded and the pineapple became well-known.