Halloween and Thanksgiving are quickly approaching, but the spirit of the season has already been here for weeks. By early August, retailers were stocking shelves with pumpkin-flavored foods. Starbucks began selling it’s famous Pumpkin Spice Latte back on Aug. 27, and pumpkin beer has been available in bars for just as long.
People associate pumpkins with fall, and as they look forward to the season, the demand for pumpkin everything increases. According to Nielsen data, sales of pumpkin and pumpkin spice-flavored items skyrocketed in 2017 $488.7 million – up from $286 million in 2013.
But this hasn’t always been the case. There was a time when pumpkins weren’t celebrated as they are today — with products bearing their beloved image and contests cheering on their gigantic size.
“American colonists were less than enthusiastic about pumpkins,” said Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon.
The colonists were accustomed to eating a diet of domesticated meats and their bi-products, European grains and root vegetables, Ott writes. The crops they encountered on their new land were unfamiliar, and the settlers were often repulsed by them.
“They were still looking to Europe for guidance on what was popular and acceptable to eat,” said Ott.
But because pumpkins grew with little effort and a single vine could produce massive quantities of edible fruit, the pumpkin was a food colonists knew they could rely on when times got tough. Because they grew so well, the supply was plentiful and accessible to everyone. For that same reason, they were considered a peasant crop and demand was low.
“Pumpkins were really a food of last resort,” said Ott.
As the decades wore on, communities’ food supplies on the new continent became more stable. Fewer people needed to rely on pumpkins for calories.
The pumpkin’s sad fate worsened when farmers who couldn’t sell the crop at market began to use them as a source of food for their livestock. “Pumpkin eater,” “pumpkin roller,” and “pumpkin head” became derogatory terms used in popular language and literature for the poor, backwards farmer, writes Ott.
But a shift in American culture was about to change the crop’s lowly reputation.
During the mid-19th century, the Industrial Revolution drove people to seek opportunities away from the farms and in the large cities. Living quarters were usually cramped and the air was dirty. Instead of thinking of pumpkins poorly, the bright orange crop became a reminder of the idyllic childhoods they had back on the farm, says Ott.
“The pumpkin evoked a bucolic way of life they remembered. People began to adopt the pumpkin as a symbol of their cultural roots.”
Advancements in the auto industry in the early 20th century meant more families could afford cars. City folks could drive to the countryside to get away from the hectic and smoggy city life. Up sprang the popularity of weekend camps and cottages. Roadside farmstands began to pop up along the routes commonly traveled.
Pumpkins were popular at these stands, says Ott, and they soon became the symbol of the farmer once again — this time, in a positive way. People admired the hard-working, independent men and their families capable of living off the land. The farmers and their pumpkins came to represent everything people felt was important about the foundations of America.
Farmers stopped feeding their pumpkins to their livestock, and for the first time ever, were able to turn a profit from their pumpkin crop, says Ott.
“People could experience a piece of the farming life they came to romanticized — and they could take a piece of it [the pumpkin] back home to their lives in the cities. They didn’t actually want to be farmers, but the people idolized this idea of this old-fashioned farmer living off-the-land,” said Ott. “They liked to imagine they’re farmers at heart. We still do.”
The pumpkin became a commodity, ironically, because it represented a life in contrast to the fast-paced, over commercialized society America had become.
In the 21st century, pumpkins are once again helping to keep small farms alive. As large-scale agriculture jeopardized the small family farms the country was built on, pumpkins have served as a new revenue stream, says Ott. Customers enthusiastically come from miles away to “pick-your-own” pumpkin patches and pumpkin festivals. Ott says, this love of pumpkins has helped save many farms from foreclosure.
“People don’t put pumpkin in coffee or on the stoop for any reason other than the ideas that it represents. It symbolizes living off the land and it’s a way for people to maintain that connection,” said Ott. “There’s not much truth to it anymore, but those ideas of where we came from are still really powerful.”
Perhaps now when customers shop for their pumpkin cookies and coffees or take selfies at the pumpkin patch, they’ll have a greater appreciation for the long history that has led us to our modern pumpkin obsession.
Updated: Originally posted Oct. 11, 2017.