The Pinnacle of Hospitality

Fruiting structure of a mature Pineapple plant

As tea was brewing in Boston’s harbor, pineapples were trendy specialties in Britain, where 18th century gardeners had learned to grow the lowland tropical bromeliads, making fresh pineapples available to the wealthy.  This exotic and remarkable fruiting structure of a South American native plant, topped with its crown of leaves, had already come to symbolize travel,  celebration, and welcome.  Its special rarity had entered English language, as with a malapropism in George Washington’s favorite play, Sheridan’s 1775 ‘The Rivals’: “He is the very pineapple of politeness.”  By  1803, when Jane Austen had completed the initial script for her first novel, Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland’s telling reflection of General Tilney is conveyed by his faux-casual boasting: “There were great vexations, however, attending such a garden as his. The utmost care could not always secure the most valuable fruits. The pinery had yielded only one hundred in the last year.

Dunmore Pinery

The exotic lusciousness of pineapples had been seeping into European society since Columbus’s 1496 return from his second voyage, and even more notably through  Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdes’ Historia general y natural de las Indias, islas y tierra firme del mar océano, in which he features the earliest published illustration of a pineapple (1535.)  Oviedo claims the pineapple to be: “the most beautiful of any fruits I have seen. I do not suppose there is in the whole world any other of so exqui­site and lovely appearance.”

Oviedo’s Pineapple drawing

The printed woodblock is rare, but  Oviedo’s original, hand-drawn illustration, said to be the earliest depiction of a pineapple, is to be found only in San Marino, CA, in The Huntington’s manuscript collections (HM 117).  Holding that botanical treasure, combined with the 500 year history of the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality, royalty, and exploration, The Huntington incorporated graphic elements of the pineapple (taken from yet another source) in its institutional logo in the  1960s…

Ruth Levitt, 2014.  “‘A Noble Present of Fruit’: A Transatlantic History of Pineapple Cultivation”, Garden History 42:106-119.)

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