Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon

Pumpkin coverI am not a big fan of pumpkin pie. The bland flavor and gummy texture is quite unappealing to me, and I just don’t get this whole pumpkin-flavored latte, ice cream, and yogurt craze.  But I am a huge fan of Cindy Ott’s new book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon.  Before opening its pages, I had no burning desire to learn about the history of this native, oversized squash.  But once I began reading I could not put it down.  Over the last decade or so, I have been thinking, reading, and writing about the American history of a non-native fruit–the apple–carried to the Americas by European invaders.  While I’ve been pondering the impact of the apple on North America, its role in the expansion of the Euro-American societies who brought it here, and its adoption by indigenous peoples, Cindy Ott has been writing about the story of the native pumpkin, its use by these invaders, and how it ultimately emerged as a symbol prized more for its cultural than its economic value.

While Americans today distinguish the bright round orange pumpkin from other varieties of squash, the two are in fact genetically identical and can cross-pollinate.  For 3sistersNative peoples of eastern North America, squash was one of the “three sisters,” along with corn and beans, which were the core of Native American agriculture.  The three food crops were complementary both ecologically and nutritionally.  Squash were easy to grow in abundance, and “could be preserved over the winter, when other food items were scarce.”  Europeans came to the Americas with a certain finickiness born of a sense of cultural superiority, and did not immediately embrace the pumpkin.  But they brought the seeds back across the Atlantic and within a few decades of Columbus’ first voyage, New World pumpkins had spread across Europe, where they were regarded with a mix of fascination and disdain.  “As a sign of human nature,” Ott informs her readers, “the pumpkin embodied unbounded lust or lack of civility; as a symbol of a place, it represented the untamed natural bounties of North America; and as an emblem of  a way of life, it stood for a rustic peasant existence.”  But mostly they saw the pumpkin as food for the poor, and for those barely civilized Europeans who had migrated to the New World.  New England’s religious dissenters soon came to appreciate its value, especially in lean times.  The pumpkin became for poor farmers short on labor something like the untended seedling apple tree–a useful food plant which would bring forth a bounty even when neglected.  But for the wealthy and the refined, the pumpkin was a symbol of the lowly and uncivilized.

ehningerFor several hundred years, farmers grew pumpkins to supplement their families’ diet, but they had virtually no commercial value. As advances in transportation technology in the early 19th century drew most American farmers into a market economy, the pumpkin became a symbol of the pre-market, rustic, self-provisioning past. At first this reputation was a liability, but eventually as nostalgia for simpler times grew, the pumpkin’s value as a symbol of those simpler times also increased. Ott concludes that it is not a coincidence that the same Yankee poets and writers who began to celebrate the pumpkin–John Greenleaf Whittier, Sarah Josepha Hale, Lydia Maria Child, and others–also were active in the antislavery movement which championed the moral superiority of the New England family farm tradition over the exploitative plantation system of the South. The pumpkin had become a symbol of those Yankee values.

After the Civil War, American agriculture became thoroughly commercial, and farmers Harper's_Weekly-_The_Last_Days_of_Harvestspecialized, producing for national markets. There was no room for the pumpkin in this new agriculture, which had limited market appeal and in an age of mechanization could still only be harvested by hand. The late 19th century pumpkin was “one of the least profitable and palatable of vegetables,” but ironically, its value as a symbol of the agrarian lifestyle continued to grow. Images of pumpkins featured prominently in agricultural periodicals and became central attractions at agricultural affairs, eventually leading to contests to grow mammoth-sized pumpkins. By the dawn of the twentieth century, “American prized the pumpkin for its looks and its meanings, not its meat.”

The Circleville, Ohio Pumpkin Show is one of the largest annual pumpkin festivals.

The Circleville, Ohio Pumpkin Show is one of the largest annual pumpkin festivals.

Across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the pumpkin’s appeal–in the form of jack-o-lanterns and the pumpkin pie–continued to grow.  And today urban and suburban Americans venture into the countryside to select pumpkins as decorations, in an effort to connect themselves with a vanishing agrarian past.

There is so much more in this book than this brief and overly simplified description can provide. Ott will make you consider Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage in a new light, and get you thinking about the strange origins of nursery rhyme character Peter Pumpkin Eater, who solved the problem of a wayward wife by putting her in a pumpkin simple imagepumpkin shell.  Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon is a rich and multilayered cultural, environmental, agricultural, and economic history, offering astounding insights on nearly every page. Highly recommended for pumpkin-eaters and non-pumpkin-eaters alike.

For more information, check out the book’s website, www.pumpkincurioushistory.com

Stealing Apples

October 1923 cover of Country Gentleman magazine.

October 1923 cover of Country Gentleman magazine.

While traveling in eastern Pennsylvania in 1819, Englishman William Cobbett commented on the widespread American custom of taking apples from other people’s orchards without seeking permission. While many European travelers to the early American Republic wrote disapprovingly of the common practice of apple-pilfering, and saw it as a reflection of the American’s weak moral constitution, Cobbett concluded that the practice of taking apples from roadside orchards was so widespread that it would never be considered a crime in the United States. In an era when apples were abundant, the labor to pick and process them were in short supply, and primitive roads made getting perishables to distant markets a challenge, fruit frequently rotted on the orchard floor. William Cooper Howells recalled of his boyhood in eastern Ohio in the early 19th century that

William Cooper Howells

William Cooper Howells

there “were plenty of apples in the orchards . . . where they were always free to the passer-by.” Howells recalled that even a one mile trip to the flour mill could “spoil a day’s work” because along the path he would have to pass two orchards, a good fishing creek, and a good swimming hole. Howells was inclined to ask permission of the owner before taking fruit, which was always granted, but many other travelers, both children and adult, never bothered with such niceties. On his own family farm in 1820, “the peach crop was too great for us to manage, and much of it went to waste” despite the valiant efforts of the family to gather and dry as much of the crop as they could. As a result, Americans tended to see orchard fruit as a providential bounty free for the taking when God delivered it up.

From Noah Webster's American Spelling Book.

From Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book.

To be sure, many saw taking fruit without asking to be a sin and bemoaned the prevailing attitude “that every body has a legal right to eat as much fruit as he wants, wherever he can find it.” Essays on the moral instruction of children often used the example of taking apples from orchards without permission as a kind of gateway sin that could lead little boys down the wrong path. Noah Webster’s American Spelling Book used variants of a fable about a boy who stole apples in many editions of the primer. But in most of the cautionary tales about the sin of stealing apples, when the boys learn to ask the owner they were granted permission to take “just as many as you want.”  Even the moralists recognized that orchard fruit in season was in such great abundance that it would be stingy to deny anyone enough fruit to fill their pockets, so long as they asked.

As far as the law was concerned, taking apples from a roadside orchard was a trivial offense–at most an instance of trespass, for which the owner was only entitled to sue for the value of lost fruit, which in any given case would be so small as to not be worth the trouble. But as good roads and canals connected farmers to urban markets, and improvement-minded farmers invested more of their labor and resources into carefully cultivated, grafted fruit orchards with marketable winter apples, they began to perceive the passerby who pilfered a shirttail full of apples in the same light they did the pickpocket. Market-minded farmers grew increasingly frustrated that the law did not agree. As early as 1832, a court case in New York gave horticulturalists some hope that the legal system and the public might begin to take their grievance seriously. The case involved an apple-pilferer who took a farmer to court for assault. The pilferer had been caught in the act by the orchard owner who was holding a horsewhip when he demanded that the thief put down the fruit. When the brazen scoundrel refused, the

Smithers protecting Mr. Burns' orchard from apple-stealers?

Smithers protecting Mr. Burns’ orchard from apple-stealers?

orchard owner took the whip to him. The plaintiff’s lawyer confessed to the jury that he himself had on many occasions taken fruit from other men’s orchards, that no doubt the majority of the jury members had done so as well, and therefore the assault with horsewhip was entirely unwarranted. The jury disagreed and found for the farmer defendant. The story circulated among editors of agricultural journals, who read into the jury’s decision “the pleasing hope that we were on the eve of a revolution in regard to the plundering of fruit, and that a great improvement in public sentiment is taking place on this subject.”

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

The revolution did not occur overnight, but as farmers began organizing state agricultural societies, they began to lobby state legislatures to pass laws that treated apple-pilfering as a crime beyond mere trespass and imposed penalties far beyond the value of the product stolen. Eastern states, where farmers were earlier connected to urban markets, led the way. But Midwestern state soon followed. Ohio, the state where John “Appleseed” Chapman planted most of his seedling stock, passed a law stiffening penalties on apple-pilferers just one week after his death. The movement to criminalize apple-pilfering was at base a movement to press Americans to begin to recognize fruit-raising as a legitimate industry and fruit as a valuable form of property, worthy of the same protections extended to livestock and manufactured goods. It was also an effort to exterminate the old self-provisioning culture that John Chapman’s seedling apple trees represented.