Pineapples, pictured above (and yes, that’s how they actually grow), are indigenous to South America and were domesticated and spread throughout the tropical areas of the Americas well before Europeans landed in the New World. When Christopher Columbus was first introduced to the fruit, he apparently really liked it, because he brought some back with him in 1493. By the 1600s, knowledge of pineapples spread to England, where they became quite popular — and, because you can’t easily grow pineapples in the hardly-tropical climate of the British Isles, quite rare.
As a result, pineapples became a status symbol. At some point during the reign of King Charles II, he had a painting commissioned (below), titled “Charles II Presented with a Pineapple” (via the Royal Collection Trust). The title tells the entire story — true to its name, it is a picture of the king being presented with a fruit.
The fondness for the fruit wasn’t limited to royalty, either. Having a pineapple at your dinner table was the ultimate status symbol. Even pineapple-themed dinnerware, such as the set seen here, were seen as a great way to introduce the elegance of the fruit into your meals, even though such items weren’t naturally rare — there’s no ecological reason why pineapple-themed water pitchers can’t be made in England.
So it makes sense that, for the really rich — and for only the most important of occasions — only the real fruit would do. The cost of a pineapple hit ludicrous amounts — $8,000 (in today’s dollars) according to some sources — pricing out almost everyone from buying the fruit and experiencing the glory of having the spiny tropical bromeliad adorn your dinner table. But according to the book “Pineapple: A Global History,” socialites found a work-around: borrow a pineapple from someone else. Per the book, “those who could not afford to grow or buy their own but still wanted to impress could rent a pineapple to display during their entertainments, in the same way that they could rent fine china or silver.” At the end of the evening, the pineapple renter would return the fruit, and the fruit’s owner would likely sell it to its final owners (who would end up eating previously rented fruit, and not necessarily know that fact).
Ultimately, the rent-a-pineapple fad faded, as fads tend to do. It never returned, either, as improvements in shipping and the advent of refrigeration made pineapples accessible to a lot more people, and the fruit’s standing as a status symbol waned. But it did have an impact on local architecture first, as seen here.
From the Archives: Sweet as Salt: A neat home science experiment involving a pineapple, salt, and your confused tastebuds.
Take the Quiz: Name the top pineapple exporting countries.
Related: “Pineapple: A Global History.” Two five-star reviews. It’s probably a good read if you really want to learn a lot more about pineapples.