The $1 pineapple is a miracle of modern international trade

When the most famous goods of the past become common and cheap, we can always thank specialization and market innovations.

A few times a year, the grocery shop near me has ads for fresh pineapples that are whole and cost 99 cents. Most likely, so does yours. Every time I see it, it makes me think about how far people have come.

Pineapple isn't something new. People in South and Central America like the Maya and Aztec were the first to grow it thousands of years ago. Around 250 AD, when the Tanos moved to the Caribbean, they brought pineapples with them. Before settlement and the Columbian Exchange, which moved crops and foods around the world, Europeans and North Americans didn't get to try that golden sweetness. In the same short time, foods from the New World were brought to Europe, where they were eaten so much that we can't picture it any other way: The first potatoes came to the Irish, and the first peppers came to the Italians.

When pineapples first came to Europe and North America, they were so expensive that it was hard to believe. Since they came from the Caribbean and were shipped without cooling, they were easily damaged and spoiled. In today's money, one banana could cost up to $8,000.

Because pineapples were so rare, valuable, and expensive, most people rented them by the hour. They were given as gifts to important people and used as centerpieces at fancy dinner parties and other events, where guests could wonder at how exotic and strange they were. People carried the fruits around as a way to show how important they were or made them into complicated shapes. They were way too expensive to eat. No one would be able to eat the fruit until the meat was well past its prime and had been rented out many times.

1 Dollar - Elizabeth II (Pineapple) - Cayman Islands – Numista

So closely were pineapples linked to wealth and luxury that they were soon used as designs on dishes, fabrics, furniture, and even buildings. Because a pineapple on the dinner table meant that the lady had spent a lot of money, its shape was often used to welcome guests on things like bedposts, hand towels, candlesticks, and front doors.

Near the equatorial plantation, pineapple goods were preserved in a way that made them last longer on store shelves. Middle-class cook books started to include recipes for dried or crystallized pineapple and booze made from pineapple.

In cold Europe, growing pineapples was more of a hobby for the rich than a real form of farming. In the beginning, it took a lot of work and money to grow even a few pineapples each season. In 1723, to grow a plant at Chelsea Garden, huge buildings heated by stoves were needed. Ten years later, the gardeners at the Palace of Versailles were able to make one. Over the next 70 years, English aristocrats built warm glass "pineries" on their country estates, but most of them didn't do a good job of growing fruit in them.

At the beginning of the 18th century, pineapples were grown on British-owned farms in Jamaica. Slaves from Africa grew and picked the fruit in very harsh conditions.

Enterprise-level production was also popular in Hawaii. Land and labor were cheaper, but this came at a cost to the native Hawaiians. People from Europe and Asia came, ready to plant and pick fruit to sell abroad.

Like some other fruits, pineapple doesn't get sweeter or riper after it's picked, and picking them young so they can make the trip makes them taste worse. Due to shorter shipping times, more fruits were able to reach big markets in good enough condition to sell. This gave some places, like Hawaii, an added competitive edge.

By the end of the 19th century, someone was sure to bring the most advanced canning technology to the place where pineapples grew. A few companies tried to do it. Finally, the fruit could be given in a state that was close to fresh and didn't have a lot of damage or go bad. But because the US put a high tax on Hawaiian goods, canneries couldn't make money. One by one, the first companies failed.

When the US took over Hawaii in 1898, a 22-year-old businessman named James Dole arrived soon after. He was a great pineapple farmer, but it would have been hard for him not to be in those conditions. He was called the "Pineapple King" because he used machines to peel and process pineapples (it is said that his machines could process 100 pineapples per minute) and had a better trade relationship with the US than his peers.

For a short time, Hawaii controlled the market, especially when it came to selling pineapples. This is why we now use the word "Hawaiian" to mean "includes pineapple." Hawaii used to grow 80 percent of the world's pineapples, but now it only grows less than 10 percent. The Dole Food Company is still one of the biggest pineapple growers in the world, but the original plantation is now a tourist site with a pineapple theme. It is the second most visited place in a state where tourism is the biggest business. The most visited place is the WWII memorial at Pearl Harbor.  

In the past 20 years, pineapple production has moved to Costa Rica, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, which have the right mix of good weather and low prices. Even though some people think the wages on farms are low, growing and processing pineapples are usually the best jobs for those who take them. This is more than we can say about the colonial and slave eras, when the fruit was, for some reason, much more expensive.

Now, a lot of machines are used in the pineapple business. A week before harvest, chemicals that make fruit bloom are added to crops. These are the same chemicals that ripe bananas give off. Refrigerated shipping containers on ships, planes, and cars make it possible for fresh pineapples to be sent all over the world without much damage or spoilage. Grocery shops sell a lot of fresh, whole pineapples, pineapple that has been cored and cut up, and canned and dried pineapple. If you want to try pineapple today, you can get it for less than a dollar almost anywhere in the world.

Pineapples used to be the ultimate luxury item, but now almost everyone can get them thanks to changes in industry, specialization, and moving to areas with slightly better conditions for growing pineapples. When the most famous goods of the past become common and cheap, we can always thank specialization and market innovations.

Follow us on Google News