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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

When an appearance by a pineapple could make or break a party #historicalfiction #history #randomres

Last week’s random research included:

The history of the hot water bottle (yes, authors really do have to check and double check every tiny detail of their books!); divorce in 1835; and (my personal favourite) the rise and fall in fortune of the pineapple.

I know what you’re thinking: what could possibly be fascinating about the pineapple? But I soon found myself clicking on link after link after link all about the spiky fruit and its crown-like foliage. Did you know that in Georgian and early Victorian times pineapples were so incredibly expensive that only the richest in the land could afford them? They became status symbols, with all the fanciest gatherings in town featuring a pineapple as a centrepiece – and if you were really lucky you might even get to (*gasp*) taste one.

Such was their cache that the exotic fruit even started to feature in architecture and artwork. Have a look at Victorian wrought iron gates, or the stonework of buildings from that era, and you’ll almost certainly spot one.

The British aristocracy started to grow their own, but this wasn’t in order to make the pineapple less desirable, but more. To grow your own pineapples meant spending thousands of pounds every year (far more than the average wage) on specially-built hothouses, which were heated via furnaces that were constantly stoked with coal, and which often exploded. Who knew growing pineapples was dangerous! And after all that effort, the crop would probably only consist of a dozen or so.

So the exotic fruit remained elusively scarce and all the more desirable for it.

When an appearance by a pineapple could make or break a party, it’s understandable that the middle classes wanted to get in on the action. But how on earth could they, when the price of one was so far beyond their reach? Inevitably, clever people eventually saw a solution to this conundrum, as well as an opportunity to make money on the back of this supply of eager shoppers – and they started rental businesses.

That’s right: if you wanted your party to be a roaring success you could rent a pineapple for a fraction of the cost of buying one. The same fruit would do the rounds, going from soiree to shindig until it rotted – it can only be hoped it got cheaper to rent as it grew more mouldy…

Eventually pineapples became easier to grow thanks to the expertise of gardeners, and at the same time steamer ships meant an explosion in imported goods. Eventually, the pineapple became reasonably commonplace. Now, it’s easy to buy tinned pineapple – but that in itself is a tragedy. Why? Because once there were over 50 varieties of pineapple, but only the ones that would grown in a convenient shape to fit into a tin, and therefore to maximise profit, were chosen over the years, while the others were allowed to become extinct. Now there are only two varieties of pineapple in the world.

I do love some random research! At the start of each working week I never quite know what I’ll learn; its one of my favourite parts of being a writer. I may celebrate with some pineapple…

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