Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Sign of Welcome

QUESTION: At a number of Americana antique shows I’ve attended, I’ve seen pineapples used as decoration, especially on pieces of furniture from the 18th century. Can you tell me why cabinetmakers used them so much?

ANSWER: Pineapples have long been associated with Southern hospitality. Many people associate pineapples with Colonial Williamsburg. Perhaps that’s because it began decorating with them in the 1930s. But the idea didn’t start there.

Christopher Columbus discovered pineapples in 1493 on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Since the fresh sweet fruit wasn’t available back home, his crew looked on it with awe and wonder. In Renaissance Europe, fresh fruit was seldom available. Common sweets were also rare. Sugar derived from cane was expensive and had to be imported from the Middle East and Asia.

In the West Indies, however, pineapples were a plentiful native fruit. So much so that the locals used it to both warn away intruders and welcome guests. They planted barriers of pineapple around their village because they believed their sharp, spiky leaves deterred unwelcome visitors. But they also hung the fruit on their gates as a symbol of hospitality and abundance.

Columbus and his men brought these sweet, succulent fruits back to Europe where they became instantly popular. But not everyone embraced the spiky fruit. When Charles V, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor had an early opportunity to taste the pineapple, he refused, fearing that it might poison him.

In 1657, Captain Richard Ligon published A True and Exact Story of Barbados, an account of his travels from London to the West Indies. In his journal, he devoted entire pages to the pineapple.

Diaries of the time often recorded gifts of pineapples presented to the king, and late 17th century ship manifests listed pineapples making their way from Barbados and Bermuda to England.

European gardeners perfected a hothouse method for growing pineapples, and in 1675, John Rose presented King Charles II of England with the first pineapple grown in England. The king later posed for an official portrait of him receiving the pineapple as a gift. The act was symbolic of royal privilege.

During the 18th century in England, greenhouse gardening became a popular hobby for the nobility, who coveted pineapples. The fruits often served double duty at dinner parties, first as an elaborate table decoration, and then as dessert.

The Spanish were probably the first to adopt the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality, carving pineapple designs into much of their woodwork: The custom soon spread throughout Europe, where it became fashionable to incorporate pineapple motifs into furnishings. Eventually, cabinetmakers adorned tall case clocks with pineapple finials. This custom continued into the early 20th century.

Sea captains, who sailed to the Caribbean Islands and returned to the New England Colonies with cargoes of fruit, spices and rum, first introduced the pineapple as a symbol of hospitality in America. Upon their return, the captains would spear a pineapple on the fence post outside their home, where it would serve as an invitation for friends to visit and share their food, drink, and tales of adventure.

Before long, American innkeepers adopted the pineapple as a means of welcoming guests. Inns would feature pineapple motifs on their signs and advertising literature, while pineapple-related items within their establishment included carvings on bedposts, vanities and dressers along with furniture, brasses, doorknobs, lamps and candleholders.

American architects also embraced the pineapple. Early estates and public buildings often have carved wooden or stone pineapple gate posts and copper or brass pineapple weather vanes. One such example is the home of Virginia's William Byrd. In 1730, Byrd ordered a carved door surround from London for his Westover plantation mansion on the James River. The door featured a broken-scroll pediment with a pineapple in the center.

The pineapple continued to find its way into home decor. Carpets, draperies, napkins and tablecloths often had pineapple designs woven into them. And women stitched pineapples into their quilts and needlework.

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