My grocery store has mastered its planogram. It has absolutely worked out the best placement for seasonal products to maximize sales: when you walk in, you’re confronted with a wall of likely non-perishable products that saves you from running all over the store. It’s a grab-and-go-scenario, which means you can pick up what you theoretically need and head to the register within minutes. Granted, this isn't unique to this store, but they're pretty on the mark in terms of what they place in this area. In the winter, this space hosted hot cocoa and the necessary items for s'mores. In the spring, it housed a variety of Easter candy, basket trimmings, and lilies. Over the summer, it was your one-stop backyard entertainment source: everything from charcoal to ice pops to hotdog buns were within easy reach. Presently, as the days grow shorter and fall creeps up on us, it’s pumpkin-spice everything. And really, it is everything: from air fresheners to doughnuts to cereal to nuts to pasta sauce—it’s all pumpkin spice! Pumpkins hold no special status for Americans unless it’s fall. Where did the obsession with pumpkin flavors come from?
Pumpkin spice is a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. (Some varieties add ginger, and I imagine if you are creating the mix from scratch it is based entirely on your tastes.) It was originally called pumpkin pie spice, and as the name implies, was meant specifically for flavoring pumpkin pies. Contrary to popular traditional reimagining, pumpkin pie likely didn't make its debut at the first Thanksgiving. While we believe that American colonists were eating pumpkins simply because it would have been a prolific food source, their ovens would not have been capable of creating modern crusts as we know them. Instead they likely ate pumpkins in the style that American Indians did: They made soups and stews, roasted them, made them into savory sauces, and baked breads and cakes with the fruit. So this particular blend of spices as a pumpkin accompaniment also probably wasn’t around at that first feast either. In fact, these flavors didn’t come together officially as “pumpkin spice” until McCormick put it on supermarket shelves as such in the 1950s.
With this blend of spices handily contained within a spice bottle, people began to put them in other foods. And they found their way into coffees beginning in the 1990s as retailers began to experiment with flavored coffees. If it feels like this is a recent fad, it's because the proliferation of pumpkin spice followed the spread of Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003—the PSL, which is the chain’s most popular seasonal drink. But this is all readily available information. Let’s get to the heart of the matter—or gourd: one of the reasons PSL and other pumpkin spice products are so popular is because this particular flavor combination is rooted in the ethos of fall.
In the northern hemisphere, fall brings a season of harvests. It’s a time when we turn toward our homes and a time when the colonists would have built stores for the coming winter. That meant preserving and baking and their homes would have been filled with the smells of the spices that have come to constitute pumpkin-spice flavoring. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice—all imported from the West Indies—were important for flavoring and preserving meats, fruits, and vegetable and were available to the colonists. In our own way, we prepare similarly for the change in seasons today and the holiday season and these spices—either singularly or in their pre-blended form—trigger a sense of home and warmth and comfort. As Americans we have created an emotional brand around the concept of pumpkin spices that is deeply rooted in this tenuous connection to our agricultural history as a nation.
The first colonists likely experienced a great sense of culture shock when they landed in the Americas. They had little with them, and the familiar domesticated meats and European grains and root vegetables were beyond their reach. While they may have longed for these things and taken steps to create the right conditions for them to ultimately flourish, what they got was pumpkins and squashes (and beans and corn and venison) as supplied by the local Indians they befriended (and who saved their lives during that first winter). What they found was the pumpkins grew readily in New England with very high yields, making it a prime candidate for colonial porridges and stews. And because it was so readily available, when people had no apples for pies, barley for beer, or meat for dinner, they used pumpkins.
That would change as the colonies grew. The influx of immigrants in the mid-1600s created a market for trade, and the colonies began to export their goods. But while demand for tobacco, timber, fur, and barley was high, the market for the American pumpkin never quite took off. It was hampered by its history as a food for dire circumstances. It was no longer a food of necessity for the now thriving homesteads. Instead, it was used as a cultural differentiator between American colonists and Europeans; the Puritans were labeled as having “pumpkin-blasted” brains for having left England for the unknown Americas, and pumpkin-eating was cast as backwoods behavior. This fit with the early European perspective of colonists (particularly the Puritans and Quakers) as being misfits and social outcasts.
Thankfully not everyone felt this way about pumpkins. Author Edward Johnson cautioned people in the 1600s against disparaging against the fruit that had fed the young nation. For him, the pumpkin represented an agrarian lifestyle and was an icon of simpler times, particularly as cities were expanding and industries were growing with them. The poet Benjamin Thompson romanticized the early colonial relationship with the fruit, writing of a time when the pumpkin was held in high esteem and was present in most foods. This sort of nostalgia took root, particularly in the Northern colonies—where the pumpkin had been particularly prominent—and a symbol of survival was born: The pumpkin took its place as the mascot of the harvest.
Emotional branding is a consumer-centric and story-driven approach that aims to create an affective link between the consumer and the brand. Pumpkin-spice was perfectly poised to adapt this marketing tactic toward seasonal domination. The narrative of the pumpkin as a poor-man’s dinner option moved people away from everyday consumption, but the narrative of the pumpkin as a symbol of American perseverance and agrarian success means that we don’t want to forget the fruit. (It should be noted too that many immigrants eat pumpkin regularly, and not just around the fall. This would presumably only further the cultural divide in this instance, emphasizing a perceived class divide.) Pumpkin spice lets us maintain this nostalgia without committing to the fruit. Because we share the meaning of pumpkin spice, the widespread consumption of pumpkin spice items reaffirms our sense of community and solidarity. On some level, it reinforces our identity as Americans.
That is not to say that the variety of pumpkin spice items isn’t bordering on ludicrous. We surely don’t need candles to reaffirm our identity as Americans. PSL and its associated followers have been deeply criticized and parodied. In our wider cultural narrative, PSL is often derided as "basic," a classification that is as derisive and as dismissive as it can be. However, the consumer trend remains strong because the authenticity of pumpkin spice as an emotional brand is confirmed every time someone makes a purchase. Our social networks help validate this action and the behavior spreads within this group outward. And the pumpkin as a harvest item remains a strong symbol which is why pumpkin picking is such a popular fall activity. Pumpkin spice lets us manipulate that symbol without the mess of an actual pumpkin if we so chose.
This is helped, of course, by the rise in social photo sharing. Our pictures surface the pumpkin spice theme as a major characteristic of fall decor. For all our progress, we want very much to hold on to those colonial roots that ground us. Pumpkin spice isn’t going anywhere as long as we have a autumnal season to mark. But the success of these products really depends on how far the consumer is willing to allow their emotional ties to fruit to be manipulated. We probably don’t need pumpkin-spiced nuts.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
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Ott, Cindy (2012). Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. University of Washington Press.
Thompson, C., Rindfleisch, A., & Arsel, Z. (2006). Emotional Branding and the Strategic Value of the Doppelgänger Brand Image. Journal of Marketing, 70(1), 50-64.
Wurgaft, B. (2003). Starbucks and Rootless Cosmopolitanism. Gastronomica, 3(4), 71-75.