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Research tidbit, pineapples for rent?
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Matt Buckley here this time.  I have always held that one of the prerequisites to being an antique enthusiast, is an appreciation for the tidbits of information that accumulate along the way.  This minutia is prized in an equal measure to the objects.  They become exquisite little nuggets of information that  help to color the image of our history and enrich our understanding of our culture.  As so often is the case, the origins of our customs can be rooted in absurd nuanced behavior from our past.  These are the best tidbits of all.
I encountered just such a factoid recently, while researching a Salem, McIntire school work table.  The tops of the legs have wonderful carved pineapples.  They are a very rare motif in Salem furniture.  I wanted to write a few words on the meaning of the Pineapple as a cultural symbol during the 18th and 19th Century.  I had long understood it to be a symbol of the feast, which had come to express the sense of welcome, good cheer and abundance.  After a quick trip to Google, I had my delightful tidbit of absurd human behavior becoming culture.  I have included the description below, enjoy.

The pineapple has served as both a food and a symbol throughout the human history of the Americas.  Originally unique to the Western Hemisphere, the fruit was a culinary favorite of the fierce Carib Indians who lived on islands in the sea that still bears their name.  In such a gastronomic milieu, reports and later samples of the New World's pineapple--whose ripe yellow pulp literally exploded natural sweetness when chewed--made the fruit an item of celebrity and curiosity for royal gourmet and horticulturist alike.  Despite dogged efforts by European gardeners, it was nearly two centuries before they were able to perfect a hothouse method for growing a pineapple plant.  Thus, into the 1600s, the pineapple remained so uncommon and coveted a commodity that King Charles II of England posed for an official portrait in an act then symbolic of royal privilege -- receiving a pineapple as a gift.

Across the ocean, the pineapple took on other symbolic meanings in England's American colonies.  The colonies were then a land of small, primitive towns and settlements where homes served as the hubs of most community activity.  Visiting was the primary means of entertainment, cultural intercourse and news dissemination.  The concept of hospitality--the warmth, charm and style with which guests were taken into the home--was a central element of the society's daily emotional life.

Creative food display--the main entertainment during a formal home visit--was a means by which a woman declared both her personality and her family's status.  Within the bounds of their family's means, hostesses sought to outdo each other in the creation of memorable, fantasy-like dining room scenes.  At such feasts, tabletops resembled small mountain ranges of tiered, pyramided and pedestaled foodstuffs often drizzled and webbed in sugar, studded with china figurines, festooned with flowers and interwoven with garlands of pine and laurel.  Dinners were extravaganzas of visual delights, novel tastes, new discoveries and congenial conversation that went on for hours.

While fruits in general--fresh, dried, candied and jellied--were the major attractions of the community's appetite and dining practices, the pineapple was the true celebrity.  Its rarity, expense, reputation and striking visual attractiveness made it the ultimate exotic fruit.  It was the pineapple that came to literally crown the most important feasts: often held aloft on special pedestals as the pinnacle of the table's central food mound.

Ships brought in preserved pineapples from Caribbean islands as expensive sweetmeats--pineapple chunks candied, glazed and packed in sugar.  The actual whole fruit was even more costly and difficult to obtain.  Wooden ship travel in the tropics was hot, humid and slow, often rotting pineapple cargoes before they could be landed.  Only the speediest ships and most fortuitous weather conditions could deliver ripe, wholesome pineapples to the confectionery shops of cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis and Williamsburg.

A hostesses's ability to have a pineapple for an important dining event said as much about her rank as it did about her resourcefulness, given that the street trade in available fresh pineapples could be as brisk as it was prickly.  So sought after were the fruits that colonial confectioners sometimes rented them to households by the day.  Later, the same fruit was sold to other, more affluent clients who actually ate it.  As you might imagine, hostesses would have gone to great lengths to conceal the fact that the pineapple that was the visual apogee of their table display and a central topic of their guests' conversation was only rented.

In larger, well-to-do homes, the dining room doors were kept closed to heighten visitors' suspense about the table being readied on the other side.  At the appointed moment, and with the maximum amount of pomp and drama, the doors were flung open to reveal the evening's main event.  Visitors confronted with pineapple-topped food displays felt particularly honored by a hostess who obviously spared no expense to ensure her guests' dining pleasure.

In this manner, the fruit which was the visual keystone of the feast naturally came to symbolize the high spirits of the social events themselves; the image of the pineapple coming to express the sense of welcome, good cheer, human warmth and family affection inherent to such gracious home gatherings.

Whimsical pineapple shapes and interpretations became a ubiquitous form for "fun" food creations and general table decorations throughout the 1700 and 1800s.  There were pineapple-shaped cakes, pineapple-shaped gelatine molds, candies pressed out like small pineapples, pineapples molded of gum and sugar, pineapples made of creamed ice, cookies cut like pineapples and pineapple shapes created by arrangements of other fruits.  There were also ceramic bowls formed like pineapples, fruit and sweet trays incorporating pineapple designs, and pineapple pitchers, cups and even candelabras.

During the last century, the art of food display centered around the pineapple has faded to a quaint craft now largely associated with the making of certain kinds of Christmas decorations. These holiday fabrications are one of the few vestiges of an era when all life literally revolved around the dining room table; a less complicated era that left us the enduring icon of the colonial pineapple, a truly American fruit symbolizing our founding society's abiding commitment to hospitality as well as its fondest memories of families, friends and good times.

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