What Are The Historical Origins Of The 'Pumpkin-Spiced Everything' Craze?

For Americans, fall has become synonymous with one thing: pumpkin spice. But how did pumpkin spice become so popular? And how did we reach an age where pumpkin seems to be in everything?

The history of pumpkins in American cuisine dates back to before the founding of the country. Native Americans cooked with pumpkins, and colonists adopted their habits. As one Dutch traveler noted in 1655, "The English, who are fond of tasty food, like pumpkins very much and use them also in pies, and know how to make a beverage from them."

More than 350 years later, thanks to advances in industrialization, the pumpkin spice phenomenon is in full swing. The next time you sip a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, grab a handful of pumpkin spice popcorn, or nibble on a pumpkin cookie, think about all the historical trial and error that went into making this autumnal taste trend so ubiquitous.

  • The 1796 'American Cookery' Book Has A Recipe For 'Pompkin' With Molasses, Allspice And Ginger

    This early American cookbook, compiled by Amelia Simmons, includes some of the first transcribed recipes for pumpkin baked in crusts. Her recipes for "pompkin" read:

    No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.

    No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pompkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

    Pumpkins themselves have been around for millennia, and they were first cultivated in Central America around 5,500 BC. As Europeans colonized what they referred to as the "New World," they crossed paths with this filling but flavorless crop. Aided by Native tribes, they experimented with cooking methods throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. They realized pumpkin suited their taste buds when sweetened and baked in a crust, giving birth to pumpkin pie.

    In New England, colonists relied on pumpkin to survive harsh winters, and its pervasiveness gave it a place at the infamous "Thanksgiving" table at Plimoth Plantation where Natives and Pilgrims shared meals.

  • Pumpkins Were Incorporated Into The Pies Of English And French Cuisine Throughout The 17th And 18th Centuries

    In the centuries before and after American Cookery was released, both English and French cooks were inventing new pie-making styles with pumpkin. As an example, one French recipe calls for the pumpkin to be prepared like this:

    Boil it with good milk, pass it through a straining pan very thick, and mix it with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds; let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.

    Before they came into contact with pumpkin, the English spent the Middle Ages perfecting squash pies - and using the same spices that would later be incorporated in their pumpkin pies after they crossed the Atlantic. "You find the cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg combo everywhere up into the 16th century," historian Ken Albaba says. Sugar was often added, too, when available.

    These spices are now the staple ingredients for any pumpkin spice flavoring.

  • Nutmeg Was So Popular In Western Europe That The Netherlands Once Traded Manhattan For A Nutmeg-Producing Island

    Nutmeg was such a hot commodity in 1677 that the Dutch traded Manhattan - yes, that Manhattan - to the British in order to acquire an Indonesian island that was seen as one of the most reliable sources for the spice. This story is important to the evolution of pumpkin spice because, without nutmeg, this beloved seasoning would not exist.

    A central component of pumpkin spice, nutmeg has been used by people for at least 2,000 years. During the Middle Ages, nutmeg was so desired in the international spice trade that "at one point in the 1300s, when tariffs were at their highest, a pound of nutmeg in Europe cost seven fattened oxen and was a more valuable commodity than gold."

    This sweet and nutty concoction continues to be important, thanks in part to the pumpkin spice phenomenon (though a pound of nutmeg now retails for only $18).

  • 'Pumpkin Pie' Is Specifically Mentioned In New England Literature And Became A Point Of Local (And Abolitionist) Pride

    Since pumpkin pie originated in the New England colonies, which is also where the abolitionist movement was born, it makes sense that the dessert made its way into the political and fictional writings of regional authors during the mid-19th century. Sarah Josepha Hale, author of the 1827 anti-slavery book Northwood, wrote that "the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche" at a Thanksgiving table in the novel.

    Another abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child, ended her famous poem, "The New-England Boy's Song about Thanksgiving Day," with an homage to her favorite pumpkin dish:

    Over the river, and through the wood -
    Now grandmother's cap I spy!
    Hurra for the fun!
    Is the pudding done?
    Hurra for the pumpkin pie!

  • By The 1920s, Manufacturing Advances Made Canned Pumpkin Readily Available

    Before the Chicago-based Libby's canning company introduced canned pumpkin in 1929, cooking with pumpkins was an all-day process. People had to roast, stew, and strain pumpkins in order to get them to the right consistency for baking and soup-making.

    Thanks to advancements in food processing, the canned version of pumpkin cut the preparation time drastically, and pumpkin pie as we know it today was conceived.

  • Modern 'Pumpkin Spice' Can Largely Be Traced Back To A Specific McCormick 'Pumpkin Pie Spice' Blend Released In 1934

    Five years after canned pumpkin hit the markets, spice company McCormick & Company released its "Pumpkin Pie Spice" blend in 1934. While it wasn't the first company to bring together spices used in cooking pumpkin, McCormick's blend went on to become the most popular.

    By the 1960s, this product's name was shortened to "pumpkin spice." What's funny about this title is that pumpkins themselves are quite bland, and it's the seasonings used to make them edible that are now identified as pumpkin spice. The blend contains cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice.

    McCormick sold almost four million bottles of pumpkin spice in 2014. Think about all the pies made by those sales.