Chalk another one up to the Victorians. I think my friends who attended SteamCon this year may be particularly interested in today’s story, since it’s such a weird little setting detail.
First of all, the English loved pineapples. Most of Europe did. They were first introduced to them by none other than Christopher Columbus when he returned from his final voyage in 1502. A couple years earlier he had sent his men ashore to explore a seemingly abandoned native village near the island of Guadaloupe. The men found large cooking pots full of human flesh and surrounded by different kinds of fruit, which the men described as “…an abrasive, segmented exterior like a pine cone and a firm interior pulp like an apple…” The men left before the natives could return. Columbus would later receive some less gruesomely acquired samples off the coast of Honduras.
But anyways, history blurb aside, pineapples were quite a commodity. Sweets were uncommon; processed sugar had to be imported from the Middle East and orchards could only supply fruits during certain times of the year. However, pineapples are notoriously fickle in both their growth and shelf life, meaning that the fruit was usually reserved for the upper class. Pineapples needed constant tropical air temperatures never dropping below 70 degrees fahrenheit. Worse than that, they also required constant soil temperatures as well. Worse than that, the plants needed three years before they would even begin to grow fruit. And even if you could get fruit, it would keep for at most a month or so. Quite a problematic plant.
In order to try to grow the fruit locally, horticulturists developed an odd kind of greenhouse called a pineapple pit. The pit consisted of three deep interconnected trenches that would be sealed up with glass or bricks. The fruits grew in the central trough, while the outer ones would be filled with up to 15 tons of horse manure. Holes between the trenches would allow heat and gasses from the rotting manure to funnel underneath the growing plants, providing a constant tropical heat. Flues could be used to direct and control the airstream. Steam boilers were occasionally used instead of poop, but only in households that could afford them.
However, the progress of technology would eventually end this interesting practice. As steam ships improved, the cost of importation gradually dropped until the pits were no longer necessary, although a few can still be found operational today.