If you’re like me, you probably grew up hearing a charming story about John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, in which he planted apples across America so that no one would ever go hungry again. The image, overall, is of an eccentric but kindly man who went around planting apples so pioneers could have fresh, healthy fruit to eat. Here’s the 1948 version of the story from Disney, if you have 15 minutes:
In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan discusses Johnny Appleseed. He really did exist, and he did travel around the frontier planting apples from apple seeds and later selling the apples to pioneers (and apparently giving lots of trees away, too). He was, by all accounts, extremely eccentric, wearing sackcloth as a tunic for clothing, going barefoot much of the time, and so on. He was a vegetarian, though I don’t know if chipmunks and other animals pranced around in the woods with him.
But there’s a little detail the Disney movie and all the kids’ books about Johnny Appleseed got wrong. His apples weren’t for eating. They were for liquor.
Apples don’t grow “true” from seeds — that is, if you plant a Granny Smith apple seed, the tree that grows will not produce Granny Smith apples (the vast majority of the time, anyway). The only way to be sure what kind of apples a tree will produce is to graft limbs onto it from another apple tree that has the kind of apples you want. Most trees that grow from seeds produce smallish apples that are bitter and very much unlike the glowing waxed fruit we’ve come to associate with health and a good diet. People would not want to eat those apples. But what they could do with them is turn them into apple cider, alcoholic apple cider.
For much of American history, alcoholic beverages were widely consumed by both adults and children. Before clean water was necessarily available, it was safer to drink alcohol, particularly in cities.
So how did we go from apples as source of liquor to apples as healthy fresh fruit? According to The Straight Dope,
We stopped drinking apples and started eating them in the early 1900s. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union publicized the evils of alcohol, the movement towards Prohibition was gaining momentum, and the apple industry saw the need to re-position the apple… We can thank prohibition for shifting the image of the apple to the healthy, wholesome, American-as-apple-pie fruit that it is today.
Anyway, it’s sort of a funny instance of both the way we sanitize history and of re-branding. Most of us, raised on images of Laura Ingalls Wilder, can’t imagine early pioneers drinking alcohol all day and happily giving it to their children, or that there might be legitimate reasons for doing so (protecting your kids from getting dysentery from polluted water, for instance). And apples have become such an icon of health that the idea of campaigns against them as sources of liquor is unimaginable.
Originally posted in 2009.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.