The Charming Symbolism of Charleston’s Pineapples

Guests of my Charleston Walking Tours may start to notice a recurring abundance of pineapples throughout the Historic District. Some are blatantly large — like the wonderful Pineapple Fountain at Waterfront Park, and others are more subtle, like carved art upon columns, door knockers, and other creative sculptures.

Really? Pineapples? Yep. Believe it or not, the pineapple was once a “hot commodity.” It’s hard to imagine that a fruit we can, today, pick up fresh at the grocery store on a daily basis, was considered a rarity and denoted great wealth.
 
So how did it all begin?  When Christopher Columbus, on his second trip to the Caribbean region in 1493 went ashore to check out an abandoned village, there among thick foliage and wooden pillars carved with serpents, his crew encountered piles of freshly stocked vegetables and strange fruits. The European sailors ate the unusual food and then wrote about the curious new fruit they’d found, which they described as abrasive with an exterior resembling a pine cone and a delicious interior flesh like that of an apple.

At this time, cane sugar and other fresh fruits were costly and scarce when Columbus returned to Europe and introduced the sweet pineapple. It was instantly well received among the royal court, but it took 200 years before gardeners were skilled enough to perfect a hothouse method for growing the tropical plant. As far back as the late 17th century, the mysterious pineapple remained so unique and uncommon, (even coveted!) that King Charles II of England (who Charleston is named after) posed for an official royal portrait whilst showing off his royal privilege, and is depicted being gifted a pineapple.

Two things contributed to cement the pineapple’s reputation as a status symbol in small towns of the American colonies: scant supply and high demand. And, only the fastest ships and favorable weather conditions could deliver ripe pineapples to the sweet shops of cities such as Boston, Annapolis, Williamsburg and Philadelphia. Slower ships and stormy weather caused the pineapples to spoil, thus, only those rich enough to afford the best got the goods, so to speak.

Tradition says that a hostess’s ability to decorate her dining table for an elaborate dinner with the magical pineapple said a lot about her rank in society. And, these fine fruits were so difficult to come by, they were often rented to households by the day! Later, the same fruit was sold again and this time, the buyer would eat it. If a guest was seated at a table that was topped with a pineapple display, he/she felt honored, indeed. Thus, the mere presence of a pineapple came to symbolize the warm hospitality characteristic of gracious gatherings. In a way, just a glimpse of a pineapple in person was like a cool celebrity sighting!

Legend has it that salty sea captains of New England sailed around and traded among the Islands many of the fruits and other wares for months, then would travel back home, and spear one of the wrought iron posts outside his house with a pineapple for all to see. This signaled to his friends that the master of the house had returned safely and to please stop by for enthralling sea stories of my voyage. 

And, like many traditions and legends, over time the stories grew so colonial innkeepers jumped on the pineapple bandwagon by adorning their signs and advertisements, even bedposts carved in the shape of a pineapple were common. Over the years, the symbol of welcome and hospitality became a much-loved motif of architects, artists and craftsmen. Some versions of the pineapple are in the form of the Italian pine cone with a very similar look and shape.

To see some of the illustrious ways Charlestonians display their pineapples, book a walking tour with me. Let’s see how many we can find.

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