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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

How the Humble Apple Got Sold as the Ultimate Symbol of Fall Cheer and Wholesomeness

How the Humble Apple Got Sold as the Ultimate Symbol of Fall Cheer and Wholesomeness
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, AP)
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With the approach of Labor Day, chain stores across America fill with decor and foods that evoke a “traditional,” idealized experience of rural autumn, one heavy on hay bales and flannel and, of course, pumpkin spice. Looming over it all: A very New England image of the bright, shining, plump red apple, with a wholesome early American aura. Well, turns out, colonial New Englanders were more likely to be growing ugly apples to turn into alcohol, and their icon, Johnny Appleseed, was really a bit of a marketing gimmick.

In her new book The Truth About Baked Beans, Meg Muckenhoupt traces the history of New England via its cuisine—or rather, its supposed cuisine. “In a period spanning roughly 1870 to 1920, the idea of New England food was carefully constructed in magazines, newspapers, cookbooks, and cooking schools, largely by white middle- and upper-class women who were uninterested in if not outright hostile to New England’s immigrant and working-class cooks,” Muckenhoupt explains, part of an attempt to lionize America’s colonial past and enshrine New England as its premiere home. Hence, for instance, lots of recipes that replaced sugar with molasses, because it seemed old-timey. One of the many disconnects lies in New England’s long history with the apple—specifically, how they preferred to turn it into alcohol, and how they turned Johnny Appleseed from a Midwestern wanderer into an icon of regional respectability.

Apples have a very long history of being drunk in New England, perhaps drunk even before they were first eaten. The Reverend William Blaxton was growing apples in what is now Boston by 1630, but no one knows when or how he got them or what he used them for. A decade later, he planted the first apple orchard in Rhode Island and grew “yellow sweetings.” When he preached, supposedly “to encourage his young hearers [, he] gave them the first apples they ever saw.” Trees Blaxton supposedly grew still bore fruit two centuries later in Cumberland, Rhode Island.

By 1628, though, two years before Reverend Blaxton’s orchard was observed, some older hearers in the colony at the time were hankering after cider, based on their orders for apple seeds, not trees. Governor Samuel Endicot had men plant New England’s first apple orchard on his land in Salem in 1628, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony put in an order for apple seeds from England that same year. It’s not clear what sort of apples Endicot grew from this Transatlantic seed order, and the seeds the Massachusetts Bay Colony received would have been a very mixed bag.

Apples do not breed true from seeds. To reproduce apple varieties, breeders don’t plant apple trees but graft branches from an existing apple tree on to another tree’s root stock. Plant a Red Delicious apple’s seed and you may get a sweet, crisp red apple—or you may get a shriveled, bitter, green little grinch fruit. No one then, and no one since, has discovered how to foretell the future apple from a seed.

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Image: NYU Press

If you’re planning to make cider, though, it’s much better to have a variety of apples on hand, not just sweet stuff. Apples eaten fresh are “sweet” or “dessert” apples—but as any beer drinker knows, sweetness isn’t always the best flavor for alcohol. Beer makers use hops to add a balanced bitterness to their brews. To create a tastier drink, traditional hard cider makers include not only sweet but also bitter and sharp apples.

Of course, colonists did grow dessert apples too—just not nearly as many of them. By 1649, one Henry Wolcott of Windsor, Connecticut, had established a grand orchard containing several named varieties of sweet apple trees, including Summer Pippin, Holland Pippin, Pearmain, London Pippin, and Belly Bond, a garbling of the French “Belle et Bonne.”

In the seventeenth century, colonists were used to drinking beer, not cider, back in England. Unfortunately, all the extra barley for making beer was also back in England. After a series of miserable wheat harvests, including the disaster of 1644 when “the blast took hold of Connecticut and New England,” barley became more valuable as an ingredient for bread and broth, not beer. Apple cider was the next best thing to beer.

Almost a century later, in 1734, the honorable Paul Dudley of Roxbury, chief justice of Massachusetts, boasted about the sheer amount of fruity alcohol being produced.

Our people of late Years have run so much upon Orchards that in a village near Boston consisting of about forty Families they made near three Thousand Barrels of Cyder. This was in the Year 1721. And in another Town of two Hundred Families in the same year, I am credibly informed they made near ten Thousand Barrels. Some of our Apple Trees will make six, some have made seven Barrels of Cyder, but this is not common, and the Apples will yield from seven to nine Bushels for a Barrel of Cyder.145

Cider was largely a “home brew” drink in America from the earliest settlement onward. Apples grew abundantly in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and cider could be made from wormy, scabby apples that couldn’t be stored for winter eating. Cider was so cheap that it wasn’t worth shipping to distant cities to sell. Farm families would keep a few barrels of cider in the cellar along with cabbages and potatoes, and up until the 1830s Americans were downing an average of 15 gallons of hard cider a year, along with 5 gallons of distilled spirits (mostly whiskey) and 2 gallons of beer. Homemade hard cider was relatively low in alcohol (approx. 5–7 percent), but when hard cider was shipped to cities it was fortified with stronger liquors until it was at least 20 proof to keep it from spoiling.

From Cider to Appleseed

After they started making cider, New Englanders made Johnny Appleseed. Johnny Appleseed, née John Chapman, supposedly spent his time gently planting apples, soothingly civilizing the western frontier, providing nourishing food for pioneers. Even though Johnny Appleseed planted most of his apples between what is now Toledo, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, his apples—and his fame—are the result of New England’s ongoing efforts to define America.

John Chapman was born in 1774 in Leominster, Massachusetts. Drive by Leominster on MA Route 2 today and you’ll see a sign reading,

Welcome to Leominster

Pioneer Plastic City

The Birthplace of Johnny Appleseed

This sign simultaneously honors both Chapman’s spunk and Leominster’s status as the home of the first manufacturer of pink plastic lawn flamingoes. By the 1790s, Chapman had left Massachusetts for northwestern Pennsylvania. His life was a mixed bag of business dealings, wandering, and proselytizing. He spent his time creating apple nurseries in the unclaimed wilderness in Ohio and Indiana, planting and selling apple trees, and buying, defaulting on, and losing property. His apples were never meant for pies. John Appleseed (as he called himself ) would collect apples from pressings at cider mills and throw them on the ground in a semicleared thicket, coming back a year later to see which saplings had survived. Historians assert that he did this from 1800 to 1814 in an attempt to stake claims to land out in the pioneer territories by “improving” the lots. In the end, all his claims were jumped by other settlers.

Although he did plant plenty of apple trees, Chapman was not the first person to plant apples in the Midwest. Contemporary observers spotted apple orchards in Native American villages in Hardin County, Ohio, in 1800, and apple nurserymen were shipping apple scion wood for grafting back east from Cincinnati in 1804. As historian William Kerrigan observed, “When I traveled around the Midwest to gather material in my research, I regularly encountered local historians who claimed Johnny Appleseed must have planted the wild apple trees the first settlers of their town found when they arrived. It did not occur to them to consider that native peoples could have planted them.”

Chapman wasn’t far ahead of the nursery business. The first nursery selling grafted, named varieties of apple trees was set up in Marietta, Ohio, in 1794 and was selling more than 16,000 apple trees a year by 1821. An 1818 catalog published by Silas Wharton, a nurseryman in Waynesville, Ohio—an area John Chapman wouldn’t reach for another decade—lists 79 varieties of apples for sale, including 58 “winter keepers” for storing through spring. Pioneers who traveled on any major roads or waterways in Ohio had plenty of opportunities to purchase seedlings of Maiden’s Blush, Golden Pippins, Rhode Island Greenings (allegedly the same apple planted by Reverend Blaxton in Cumberland), Royal Pearmains, and even the infelicitously named Skunk Apple.

Unlike the professional nurserymen, Appleseed reportedly refused to plant or propagate grafted seedlings because grafting was “wicked.” How kind was it of John Chapman to scatter weedy trees with bitter fruit across land that didn’t belong to him? Did he simply continue to mark his territory, like a bear scratching on a convenient oak, as his businesses failed?

Chapman didn’t spend all his time as a fruit pusher. He also proselytized for the New Church, also known as the Swedenborgian Church, which held (and still holds) a variety of radical beliefs for Christians, including rejecting the trinity for a single God, asserting that Judgement Day had already taken place, and claiming that people create their own heaven or hell in the afterlife depending on how well they loved others on earth. From the 1830s onward, Chapman wandered the Midwest dressed in tattered clothes and carrying just a few New Church books and a bag of apple seeds. He traveled endlessly, sleeping on floors and in barns, planting apple trees and spreading the good news about Swedenborgianism wherever he went.

Early accounts of Johnny Appleseed in Ohio county histories dating from the 1860s told tall tales about the tree hugger’s ability to chop twice as many trees in a day as other men or how he could withstand extreme heat and cold. Many mentioned his meekness and humility. Some sneered at his planting apple trees in the wilderness with no protection, leaving them to be devoured by hungry deer and cattle.

By the 1870s, though, Appleseed was being rehabilitated as “A New England Kind of Saint,” as the poet Vachel Lindsay later put it, a man who epitomized piety, charity, and frugality. Unitarian minister W. D. Haley published a paean to Johnny Appleseed in the Atlantic magazine in 1871, praising Chapman’s compassion and gentleness: “He was never known to hurt any animal or to give any living thing pain—not even a snake. The Indians all liked him and treated him very kindly. They regarded him, from his habits, as a man above his fellows.” Haley never explained how he knew that “the Indians” had any particular feelings toward this man, who wasn’t planting apple trees for them—the trees were for the white settlers. No first-person accounts of Native Americans’ reactions to Chapman have been reported.

Lydia Maria Francis Child, the Massachusetts author whose poem “Over the River and Through the Wood” helped to entrench Thanksgiving in American culture, published a poem titled “Apple Seed John” that sparked Appleseed’s fame. In 1881, Child wrote about how humble and devoted Appleseed was.

In cities, some said the old man was crazy;

While others said he was only lazy;

But he took no notice of gibes and jeers, He knew he was working for future years.


So he kept on traveling far and wide,

Till his old limbs failed him, and he died.

He said at last, “T’is a comfort to feel

I’ve done good in the world, though not a great deal.”170

The poem was immensely popular. Appleseed was a new kind of national hero for post–Civil War Americans exhausted by violence and tired of war. Unlike gun-toting Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, who made space for new settlements by slaughtering the existing Native American residents, Johnny Appleseed simply planted trees to improve the land, something that Child and her peers repeatedly claimed the Native Americans didn’t do. This was odd, given the unending Victorian repetition of the story of Squanto’s gift of corn agriculture to the Pilgrims. How is it that Native Americans taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn but couldn’t understand the importance of planting fruit trees? And yet Child wrote,

Sometimes an Indian of sturdy limb

Came striding along and walked with him;

And he who had food shared with the other,

As if he had met a hungry brother.

When the Indian saw how the bag was filled,

And looked at the holes that the white man drilled, He thought to himself ’twas a silly plan

To be planting seed for some future man.

Appleseed’s reputation took off after Child’s poem was published, and through the 1930s he was offered up as the incarnation of the American spirit, tramping across the hinterlands, peacefully planting seeds in meadows in a state whose land was ceded to white settlers by Shawnee, Chippewa, Ojibwa, Wyandot, and many other tribes. In these stories, the Native Americans simply vanish the same way the friendly Native Americans were supposed to have evaporated from New England history after the first Thanksgiving instead of dying from disease, enslavement, and King Philip’s War—or even continuing to live in New England, as their descendants do today.

In latter-day poems, children’s books, and Disney cartoons produced in the 1920s and 1930s, Chapman’s Swedenborgian beliefs become a generic benevolent Christianity. Instead of a colonizer roaming a ravaged landscape, he’s a faithful, benevolent seed planter, a Pomona of the prairie. Chapman also made a difference as an individual. He didn’t try to actually change how society worked by, say, joining the abolitionists or unionizing farmworkers.

Sustainable Cider

Cider production slowed as New Englanders fled their cold, rocky farms in the late nineteenth century and beer brewed from Midwestern grain became cheaper than apples—but in the last two decades, New England has seen a resurgence of hard cider makers and drinkers, with events like Franklin County Cider Days promoting the historic drink. Apples grow well in New England, unlike wheat, which pouts in New England’s humid, fickle climate. And the joy of growing apples for cider is that the drinkers never see the apples—just the cider. Farmers don’t need to endlessly spray insect-poisoning chemicals or prune apple trees to create plump, beautiful apples suitable for tempting Snow White. Ugly, lumpy apples make cider just as well as pretty fruits and take a lot less work.

As for those juicy, sweet dessert apples: as of 2001, consumers in the Northeast drank more apple juice and ate more apple desserts per capita than any other area of the county, but lagged the West in consuming fresh apples. As is our regional tradition, New Englanders prefer packaged, processed foods over fruit that is simple, primitive, and fresh.

Excerpted from The Truth about Baked Beans: An Edible History of New England by Meg Muckenhoupt. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted courtesy of NYU Press.

Meg Muckenhoupt is a freelance writer and author of Cabbage: A Global History, among others. Her work has been featured in the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, and the Time Out Boston guide; her book Boston Gardens and Green Spaces (Union Park Press, 2010) is a Boston Globe Local Bestseller.