From Jack-O’-Lantern to Pumpkin Pie: The Surprising History of a Favorite Fall Icon

A group of small pumpkins atop hay

Many of us take for granted the American tradition of displaying carved pumpkins on the stoop for Halloween. But why pumpkins? And how did they become so much a part of American life—from pies to giant show pumpkins, from pumpkin spice lattes to pumpkin festivals? I recently interviewed Cindy Ott, author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, and discovered the surprising and varied roles that pumpkins have played in American culture. Below is a condensed and lightly edited version of our phone conversation.

Daniel Grant: How did you become interested in the cultural history of pumpkins?

Cindy Ott: It’s a good origin story because I was helping a friend who has a fall stand outside of Washington, DC, and after being out there for several weekends in a row, I started thinking, “What’s going on? Thousands of families are piling into their cars and driving thirty miles out to the country to buy this vegetable that they aren’t even going to eat.” And then of course everything else began to look funny, like the fact that you take a vegetable and put it on your front stoop, and that unlike people around the world who eat pumpkin and squash unceremoniously, you find it in the [American] markets in the fall, sweetened as a dessert, and wrapped up in this national tradition and association with the harvest. Small towns put on pumpkin festivals even though few people have any sort of economic or historic ties to the vegetable. So I began looking into the deeper question of how Americans use nature and history to create these national and personal traditions and the impacts that they have on rural economies.

Almost every food has a cultural history in American life, like apples, strawberries, and cherries. But what makes the pumpkin unique is not only its huge size (you could have a twenty-eight ounce apple or a huge ear of corn which aren’t that big compared to a two-thousand-pound pumpkin), but also the fact that it has no practical use. So this is a good model to talk about these kinds of bigger cultural trends. The pumpkin and the squash are botanically indistinguishable, and Americans didn’t start distinguishing between them until the nineteenth century. They did so for cultural reasons, not for any kind of botanical or physical differences. Libby’s canned pumpkin, for example, the largest canned pumpkin producer in the country, calls their product pumpkin instead of squash because the pumpkin means more to the average American consumer. But if you saw the thing, it looks just like squash—because it is squash—but of course they call it pumpkin because who wants to buy canned squash? So this is not just a story of myth making, but also one showing the repercussions of these myths for rural economies.

DG: If squash and pumpkin are genetically equivalent, when did breeding pumpkins become a cultural priority and for what reasons?

CO: Through the colonial period, many squash-related varieties were interchangeable. In the early nineteenth century when people were moving off farms and into cities, the smaller and sweeter varieties that we now call squash were available in the market place and people ate them on a daily basis, like we do now. Zucchini and winter squash, for example, had some commodity status, and were a part of their daily lives. But the pumpkin—that orange round squash—was the crop that was left behind on the farm and it didn’t go into the market place. Small-scale farmers kept it in production because it was a substitute for livestock fodder, but it wasn’t in any way part of the modern agricultural system. It started to represent an old-fashioned way to make a living off the land. So in the early nineteenth century when industrial agriculture took off, there was no room for the pumpkin in the marketplace. But this was exactly the time it started to appear in Winslow Homer’s paintings and Harper’s Magazine and romantic poems.

Depiction of a colonial landscape featuring pumpkins at center. Theodore de Bry, They Reach Port Royal, engraving, illus. in Brevis Narratio, 1591, Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington, D.C., LC-USZ62-380.

Depiction of a colonial landscape featuring pumpkins at center. Theodore de Bry, They Reach Port Royal, engraving, illus. in Brevis Narratio, 1591, Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington, D.C., LC-USZ62-380.

DG: Was the cultural change in attitudes toward the pumpkin common across the country, or did some areas regard it more favorably than others?

CO: The pumpkin was also wrapped up in a political story. Some of the most popular writers about pumpkins in poems and short stories were also strong abolitionists who saw the pumpkin as a symbol of a virtuous small-scale farming way of life. It had a very different meaning in the American South: a lot of southerners and especially African-American southerners ate sweet potato pie but not pumpkin pie, and not because pumpkin wasn’t available. Pumpkin was available, but in the South that small-scale way of life was associated with poor tenant farmers and poor rural blacks, so it didn’t have nearly the romance that it did in the North. There was also a very derogatory association between pumpkins and poor blacks so it wasn’t revered in the same kind of way. During Reconstruction after the Civil War, whites from the North and South united against African-Americans, so cultural tastes for the pumpkin remained largely a white northern attitude, while sweet potato pie remained associated with black southern cooking. So there’s a cultural history behind that difference in taste too.

DG: When did industrial pumpkin production really take off? Where was that located?

CO: Morton, Illinois is the location of a Libby’s processing plant. Libby’s controls about ninety percent of the market for culinary pumpkins, and they’ve been around almost a hundred years. In 1970 they tried to have one big corporate-sized pumpkin farm in California, and the plan was to ship the crop back to Morton for processing. So they tried that model but it didn’t work because the market for the pumpkin is lucrative but limited; it could be eaten throughout the year, but it’s not. Ninety percent of the market is from September through January. Huge corporate agricultural business didn’t want to invest in it, so it became a niche market for small farmers. Libby’s returned to Morton to distribute their seeds for what they call Libby’s Select Dickinson Pumpkin. They send this seed to between fifty and seventy small family farms within a seventy-five mile radius of their plant, and these farms are about three hundred acres each, so these are small-scale farmers. These farms then plant these seeds on behalf of Libby’s.

Can of Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin.

Can of Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin.

There are also a lot of farms that have started having pumpkin festivals as well. And in these festivals you don’t celebrate modern agriculture, you don’t go out there to learn about genetically modified crops and things related to industrial agriculture, you go out there to learn about these deep values—that’s what’s being marketed. So even the most industrial scale form of pumpkin production helps to support small family farms. The industrial process isn’t very high tech: they take the whole thing, they make a stew out of it, they strain it and it’s pure pumpkin without some of the water content. The trucks roll in, they put it in cans—a practice that dates as far back as 1900—so it’s not all that high-tech, the process, and then it’s distributed by trucks. Anybody who cooks with fresh pumpkin will know it’s not the same as fresh pumpkin, but it has become the tradition for most Americans to bake pies with the canned pumpkin.

DG: Pumpkins also tend to be prized for their aesthetic appeal.

CO: If you’re a pumpkin farmer, the key is to have variety because the families that buy them each get one with a different size and shape. But in the story of how it became an icon, it was really consumers creating the market and the farmers following to meet demand. Farmers would be driving down the highway in a truck full of pumpkins for their hogs and they’d be stopped by tourists on their Sunday drives through the country asking if they could buy pumpkins. Farmers never had the idea that this was going to be a commodity. So then the seed companies started changing the seed to fit the idea that this was going to be an object of display and ornament instead of something to eat.

Today, sixty-five to seventy percent of pumpkin production is for ornamental pumpkins, and they are produced around the country. Most places across the country are conducive for small family farms to produce these—you can throw in a few seeds and get a pretty good yield. It’s a lucrative but limited market, so there’s almost nobody that ships nationwide but almost everyone ships locally. If you’re a trucker in Nebraska, you basically stick in Nebraska for pumpkins because it just doesn’t pay, especially for the ornamentals. If they get nicked or the stem falls off they’re worthless, so that makes it a local crop too.

Urban families buying pumpkins.

Urban families buying pumpkins. Glaser, William C.C., Lithographer. In Florence Bourgeois, “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Grower” (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1937.)

Farms bring people out to pick pumpkins in the fall and diversify their products to appeal to different tastes. They might sell jams and gourds and many varieties of pumpkins to create a variety of consumer products for people to buy. They make more money selling pumpkins than almost anything else. There are stories of farmers pulling up their pig sty or cabbage or pea crops to put in a pumpkin patch and a parking lot because they make more money selling pumpkins six months a year than they do selling hogs or other crops all year around.

DG: I’ve heard about small towns having pumpkin festivals. What’s that story?

CO: There are pumpkin celebrations all across the country. These annual festivals have in many cases replaced the Fourth of July celebration. But most places don’t have any kind of economic ties to large-scale pumpkin production. Spring Hope, North Carolina, for example, has the annual Spring Hope Pumpkin Festival that pulls the town into the old stories about American culture and the pilgrims and the virtuous agrarian myth. That national story becomes their local story. They may not feel that Spring Hope is enough of a draw—adding the pumpkin gives people a sense of knowing what it means. They may not be able to tell you what it means, but they know it resonates, they like it, and it’s a positive affirmation for them. Materially, it’s really helped revitalize small towns too. They use the money for beautification, they’ve built facilities in their parks, and they’ve put lights up in their towns, so it’s made a huge difference too for these small rural communities to have these pumpkin fests.

"Spring Hope National Pumpkin Festival 2014" advertisement in local newspaper.

“Spring Hope National Pumpkin Festival 2014” advertisement in local newspaper.

DG: In what ways has the pumpkin also become associated with a kind of patriotism?

CO: I always tell people that there’s no practical reason to put pumpkin in your cup of coffee or make pie with it, so these uses suggest that the meanings are more important than the meat. Time Magazine ran a cover for its 2001 Thanksgiving issue, only a couple months after 9/11, portraying plain pumpkin pie with an American flag stuck in it against a stark white background. So this food that was once a sign of desperation in the colonial period became a food that Americans returned to for saying, “This is who we are,” and tying back to agrarian ideals. It has these positive affirmations and makes a strong statement about who we are during one of the most difficult times for the country in the recent past.

DG: How did the Jack-O’-Lantern become a distinctly American icon?

CO: There’s a long tradition of associating the pumpkin with wild nature that pre-dates Halloween. The pumpkin became part of Halloween because some of these older associations. The Jack-O’-Lantern is a tradition from the old Celtic tradition of Halloween, but it is also derived from the folklore icon the “will-o’-the-wisp,” a creepy light in marshes or woods that could possess travelers passing by. Similarly, the “Jack-ma-Lantern” is an icon in African-American folklore about lights and creepy things in the dark. Even Sleepy Hollow predated Jack-O’-Lanterns in the 1830s, but it had these associations with being out in the creepy night because of the way it grows and appears more like an animal than a plant. It didn’t just become the Halloween pumpkin only because it was harvested in the autumn and had a head-like shape, because really the deep meanings are much older. There’s a much longer history of it being associated with wild nature, and only later would it become the Halloween symbol.

L.W. Atwater, “The Pumpkin Effigy,” wood engraving, Harper’s Weekly, Nov 23, 1867. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-USZ62-8391.

L.W. Atwater, “The Pumpkin Effigy,” wood engraving, Harper’s Weekly, Nov 23, 1867. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., LC-USZ62-8391.

DG: How did some popular phrases and rhymes like “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater” come about?

CO: Those kinds of rhymes are hard to date, but what’s surprising is that the gender dynamics around the pumpkin never change. From Roman times to the present, with men, a pumpkin has been associated with a male’s head and he’s a stupid and pompous empty-headed politician all the way into the present. You see cartoons in the Washington Post portraying Al Gore as a pumpkin head. With women, it’s associated with her body, a primitive sex drive, and reproduction. In Philip Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, he wrote about a woman he calls “Pumpkin” because she represents an American object of sexual desire. In the nineteenth century, children started being called pumpkins because they went from being regarded as little adults that should be restrained to children of nature that should express their natural feelings. So that’s when you start seeing paintings of home with pumpkins next to kids because they both represent this idea of natural goodness. Libby’s had an amazing ad of a giant pumpkin with two little rosy-cheeked babies as if to say, “Our pumpkin is sweet” because they both represent this idea of natural innocence and abundance.

Cover photo by flickr user Bill Dickinson (CC BY 2.0). All other images, with the exception of the Spring Hope National Pumpkin Festival advertisement, are from with permission from the book’s author.

Cindy Ott is associate professor of American Studies at Saint Louis University and currently President of the Society of Fellows at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich, Germany. She is working on a new book and exhibition project titled “Biscuits and Buffalo: Squashing Myths about Food in Indian Country.” Website. Contact.

Daniel Grant is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on historical natural disaster narratives in the 19th- and 20th-century American West. Website. Contact.  

7 Responses

  1. Dave Evans says:

    This is a wonderful read, thank you so much Daniel and CHE. I’ll never look at pumpkins the same way.

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