These days, it’s more likely for a teacher to be seen with an Apple iPad on her desk than a Golden Delicious. But it wasn’t that long ago that giving a crisp, shiny apple to a teacher on the first day of school was common practice. But where did this tasty tradition start?

The true origin is mostly a mystery, though we do know that the apples have long served as a symbol of knowledge and education. From Greek references to a divine fruit that helped Hippomenes win a race for Atalanta’s hand, to Adam and Eve’s lesson of right and wrong, apples have been at the core of human history for a very long time.

So how did they wind up on the desk of teachers in America?

Gifting fruit has long been associated with surviving hardships throughout history. In the 1700s, poor families in Denmark and Sweden gave teachers baskets of fruit from that year’s harvest as tokens of appreciation. This tradition expanded into the centuries that followed as American frontier families were often responsible for feeding teachers, as well.

But it wasn’t until the 1800s that these gift baskets included apples. At the time, America’s apples were bitter tasting and primarily associated with the production of alcoholic beverages, like cider. The growing anti-alcohol moment sweeping the nation in the late 19th century meant that if apples farmers were to sell their harvests, apples were going to need some serious rebranding.

With the help of early 20th-century public relations professionals pushing the slogan “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the plant was quickly reinvented in the public consciousness as a healthy snack.

With a renewed interest in the fruit, farmers raced to develop sweet, edible varieties to replace the once wild, bitter plants.

The farmers’ abundant apple crops coincided with the start of the new school year, plus apples were easily portable, meaning kids of all ages could handing delivering a still-decent looking apple to their teacher’s desk.

Apples continued to be a favorite way for students to win special consideration with teachers long after families no longer had to help sustain them. In 1939, Bing Crosby sang, “An apple for the teacher will always do the trick when you don’t know your lesson in arithmetic,” in “Apple for the Teacher.”

But by the time Jan Harold Brunvand published, The Study of American Folklore, in 1968, the insult “apple-polisher” had come into fashion. The phrase meant something akin to “brown-noser” or “suck up.” Unfortunately, this phrase discouraged students from carrying on the tradition, and it largely died out.

Tradition today

These days, its not uncommon for school districts to ban outside food in an effort to help students who may be dealing with food allergies. While fruit allergies are rare, they’re not unheard of leading at least one school to place fruits — including apples — on their forbidden lists.

Still, in most schools, giving a teacher an apple can still be seen as a small token of appreciation. So with the start of a new school year, and farmers markets and roadside stands overflowing with with the fruit this time of year, consider showing your appreciation with a few shiny red apples.

And I promise. No one is likely to call your child an “apple-polisher.”

Also see, crispy apple chip recipe.

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Meghan is a full-time writer exploring the fun facts behind food. She lives a healthy lifestyle but lives for breakfast, dessert and anything with marinara. She’s thrown away just as many meals as she’s proud of.