The weird, true story of how pumpkin-spice everything conquered America.

In 2014, Americans spent over $360 million on pumpkin-flavored products — and that number just keeps going up.

Get ready. GIF from "The Muppets."

Granted, most people only indulge in one pumpkin-spice something per year, and half the time it doesn't even include real pumpkin in it. But love it or hate it — because when it comes to pumpkin spice, it's pretty polarizing — it's hard to deny that pumpkin is the official flavor of fall.


But back in the 16th century, early American settlers weren't exactly looking forward to the pumpkin-flavored everythings.

Native Americans relied on the ribbed orange squash in numerous ways to get them through the winter. So when the European settlers showed up, they followed suit.

Historical footage of colonial Americans settlers, upon first discovering pumpkins. GIF from TY Interwebs/YouTube.

Of course, they'd never seen pumpkins before, but pumpkins were plentiful and also full of starchy sugars, so that seemed like a win. Plus, pumpkins lasted for a long time, and when the other crops ran out, they could use them as beer or as meaty nutrients in their stews. As author Cindy Ott explained in her book, "Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon," "When people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for supper, they could substitute the prolific pumpkin."

That doesn't mean that any of this pumpkin stuff was good though. Back then, without the spices that we know and love today, pumpkin was just kind of a bland way to get calories into your body.

Historical footage of colonial Americans after realizing that the bland pumpkin was pretty much their most consistent source of food. GIF from San Diego Zoo.

By the early 19th century, the pumpkin craze had become a relic of hearty American nostalgia, or so we thought.

Because pumpkins weren't very tasty, they started to go out of style. And as American prosperity grew, people began to look down on pumpkins as a "last resort" food, something their poor ancestors ate to rough it through the hard times.

But then, in the 1950s, pumpkin pie spice entered the scene.

The first known reference to pumpkin pie spice was published in The Washington Post in 1936. And shortly after World War II, the McCormick spice company began to advertise a pumpkin pie spice mixture as a kind of comfort food, offering a pre-mixed, pre-packaged combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger.

Suddenly, pumpkin's venerable frontier reputation became desirable and delicious — even though it was really the spices and not the pumpkin itself that people were diggin'. (On the bright side, those spices did offer some additional health benefits, though.)

My mother always warned me that if I ate too much of something, I was going to turn into it. GIF from "Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers."

And finally, the kicker: In 2003, the pumpkin spice latte burst onto the scene. That's when everything changed.

Basically, it's all Starbucks' fault. There were some other companies offering pumpkin spice coffees (and candles) as early as 1996, but the legendary PSL is what really kicked the trend into high gear. Starbucks was looking for another seasonal drink to compliment its popular winter holiday offerings, and although they tried several other options, there was just something about the pumpkin spice latte.

The limited availability certainly didn't hurt customer excitement. And while the PSL was an immediate hit, it really took off after the recession hit. "Pumpkin became recognized as part of the comfort food trend during the recession in 2008," said Suzy Badaracco of Culinary Tides in an interview with Vox.

Approximately 50% of the American population come August, when pumpkin spice season mysteriously smarts amid the oppressive summer heat. GIF from "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!"

Ott echoed this idea in her book, too. "Those ideas, about last resort and hard times and, ‘Throw the pumpkin in and take care of yourself and your family on your small plot of land,’ became symbols and stories of American survival," she wrote. "It’s these kind of associations that people are buying, and the associations are really positive and affirming."

In retrospect, it seems kind of silly that a once pervasive and annoying squash could become such a phenomenon.

When it comes to pumpkin in particular, there's also the added irony that a "flavor" that harkens back to colonial America and has such strong associations with "whiteness" actually has more to do with imported spices than with the bland squash of its namesake.

White people dancing for pumpkin flavor derived from spices taken from former British colonies. GIF from KXVO15 10:00 News/YouTube.

But this story isn't just the story of pumpkins. It's actually true for a lot of the foods we consider popular today.

For the vast majority of world history, the vast majority of people were very, very poor. The culinary treats that we recognize today were rarely delicacies; they were just what was available at a low cost to feed a lot of people.

Soups and stews like minestrone, gazpacho, and ratatouille, crops like rice and potatoes, bread and polenta, and even a lot of sausages only gained in popularity because they were the only options available, and people needed to eat.

Now, with more people rising out of poverty than ever before, these cultural touchstones of necessity are becoming commodities. Whether that's a good or bad thing is entirely up to your personal taste — kind of like that sweet Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Most Shared
via bfmamatalk / facebook

Where did we go wrong as a society to make women feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public?

No one should feel they have the right to tell a woman when, where, and how she can breastfeed. The stigma should be placed on those who have the nerve to tell a woman feeding her child to "Cover up" or to ask "Where's your modesty?"

Breasts were made to feed babies. Yes, they also have a sexual function but anyone who has the maturity of a sixth grader knows the difference between a sexual act and feeding a child.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Instagram / JLo

The Me Too movement has shed light on just how many actresses have been placed in positions that make them feel uncomfortable. Abuse of power has been all too commonplace. Some actresses have been coerced into doing something that made them uncomfortable because they felt they couldn't say no to the director. And it's not always as flagrant as Louis C.K. masturbating in front of an up-and-coming comedian, or Harvey Weinstein forcing himself on actresses in hotel rooms.

But it's important to remember that you can always firmly put your foot down and say no. While speaking at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Actress Roundtable, Jennifer Lopez opened up about her experiences with a director who behaved inappropriately. Laura Dern, Awkwafina, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Renee Zellweger were also at the roundtable.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Life for a shelter dog, even if it's a comfortable shelter administered by the ASPCA with as many amenities as can be afforded, is still not the same as having the comfort and safety of a forever home. Professional violinist Martin Agee knows that and that's why he volunteers himself and his instrument to help.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

Believe
True
Macy's