The pineapple is unique, but not to Charleston. Newport, Rhode Island, as its historical society will tell you, is where the pineapple’s story took hold. The slave trade was called the “triangle of trade,” as Yankee captains sailed to Africa, returned to the Caribbean (the “middle passage”), off-loaded slaves and bought supplies for home — sugar, rum, and fresh fruit.
Pineapples are indigenous to the West Indies and, being unusual, were much in demand, along with oranges, lemons, et al. Scurvy was endemic, and bow-legged seamen were abundant.
An interesting story is told about the pineapple. It is said that grocers would buy a goodly supply, ripe and unripe, to sell to patrons. The poorer could rent a pineapple to use in a centerpiece, and the wealthy could buy pineapples, with the most elevated of them cutting and serving this expensive treat.
The story piqued the interest of people associated with Williamsburg in the 1950s when its recreation was getting started. It was hailed as a charming custom and pineapples proliferated, used on tea towels to teapots.
Charleston’s history of pineapples is actually not. When the owner of 9 Legare St. built gates for his house, he sent to Italy for acorns to adorn the tops of the walls. The Italians decided he didn’t want acorns but pinus pinea, the Italian pinecone which was taking decorative Europe by storm in 1830.
The Legare Street homeowner, not being able to run down to the hardware store and exchange the pinecones for the acorns he wanted, bowed to the inevitable and used the decorations shipped to him.
It took a tourist in the 1920s to say they look like pineapples (which they don’t) to voice the first reference to the fruit. Now pineapples are everywhere and Charleston, not backward, has embraced and gone wild for pineapples, using them as ornaments for architecture and home.
The Italian pinecone is also used as an early decoration in furniture and home furnishings. The two are totally different but are used interchangeably; the confusion at this point is ingrained, and the true stories are buried under years of misinformation.