Why Do Americans Like Pumpkins So Much?

(Last Updated On: October 15, 2020)

If you’re living in America, you probably see every storefront covered in orange gourds the second the calendar turns to October 1st. Depending on where you are, you might be seeing these before the first leaves even start turning and falling. While pumpkins as a seasonal thing aren’t unique to America, it seems like there’s a general consensus that Americans hold them in a uniquely special place within their hearts. So what’s the deal? What’s up with Americans and pumpkins?

Putting Pumpkins in Everything

You can’t talk about pumpkins and Americans without first talking about pumpkin spice. Love it or hate it, it’s entrenched itself into the seasonal market. Entrenched itself it has–Starbucks almost single-handedly turned pumpkin spice into an over $500 million dollar industry 4 years ago.

Also fun fact, the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte barely has any pumpkin in it. For the pumpkin that is in it, it’s mostly there to check the “this has pumpkin in it” box. The science goo is mostly about evoking the feelings of pumpkins and autumn. We suppose there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just capitalist innovation at work. We just thought it was kinda funny.

Further Reading: What Is Pumpkin Spice and Why Is it so Popular?

But outside of just pumpkin spice lattes, fall is the time for us to literally put pumpkin flavoring (whether it’s with science goo or with actual pumpkins) in everything. Here’s some neat data on how much we put pumpkins in stuff. Also, we apparently put quite a bit into dog food. Like our dogs really care about pumpkins?

More than Flavor

Obviously pumpkins are a little more than just things to eat. We put pumpkin spice in everything because they’re a cultural cornerstone, not the other way around.

Americans have a rather unique history with pumpkins. Chiefly, they are largely native to North America, and colonial Americans were sure to make use of that.

Mostly because pumpkins were edible, and historian Cindy Ott describes them as a “food of last resort.” When colonial Americans had no bread or beer, they’d have to turn to the pumpkin. Since they were originally from Europe, colonists often wanted to stray away from pumpkins. They were still largely dependent on Europe for what was and wasn’t good for eating.

So that’s right, while Americans now love putting pumpkins in everything, colonial Americans in the early days saw pumpkins as this dollar store, begrudging substitute for anything else.

Because the American colonists only ate pumpkins because they were out of everything else, the pumpkin became associated with those the colonists looked down upon (poor people). Hence, you get the phrases like “pumpkin eater” you threw around on the primary school playground.

Pumpkins were central to the diets of Native Americans where they grew, and their utility was also reaped by the Aztecs and Mayans. Which probably gave the invading colonists more reasons to stray away from the gourd where they could. You know, because racism.

But pumpkins, being native to North America, were everywhere. So colonists often kept them in stock. Once colonists got ahold of the whole “let’s expand to the west” idea, they’d travel with pumpkin seeds too.

Pumpkin Nostalgia

Fast forward to the 19th century when people moved away from farm life to city life. As Americans are rife to do, they got all nostalgic for the pumpkin. It became a nice dessert deal. 

The 1844 “Over the River and Through the Wood” would eventually codify “Americans like pumpkins now.” By the Civil War era, abolitionists would use the pumpkin as a symbol for farm life. By the 20th century, pumpkin picking became a thing, and pumpkins started being sold as a product beyond just being used as feed for livestock.

There’s also the advent of pumpkin carving, brought by Irish immigrants. 

Further Reading: Why Do We Carve Pumpkins for Halloween?

Thus, the pumpkin cemented itself as a symbol for American farm life, and embedded itself into the American psyche.

We also carve pumpkins a lot too. See some famous faces here.

Comments

comments

About Kyler 727 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.