Giving an apple to the teacher—it’s a strange, random tradition; one that seemingly has existed since the beginning of time. But as the school year starts back up again, we have to wonder where did the notion come from? Who came up with the idea of gifting fruit to the nation’s educators? Turns out this tradition has a surprisingly juicy history.
There are a couple of reasons for this truly odd cliché. Historically, apples are probably the most symbolic fruits around. From Greek mythology to the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve, apples are literally divine to their core. Given the notable lore around them, they serve as powerful metaphors of knowledge and education.
But this tradition goes deeper than the heady symbolism that surrounds apples. Ever since the 1700s, poor students and their families in Scandinavia gifted their teachers fruits from that year’s harvest as tokens of appreciation. This tradition continued and expanded into the centuries that followed in America, as frontier families were often responsible for housing and feeding teachers as well.
Apple as the fruit of choice, however, didn’t come into vogue until the late 1800s. It was around this time when the fruit underwent a major identity crisis. At that time, a majority of America’s apple varieties were bitter in taste and, as a result, were primarily used in the production of alcoholic beverages like hard cider. Given a growing backlash from the burgeoning temperance movement (which included the notorious Prohibition proponent Carrie Nation hacking an ax across America’s orchards!), the fruit was in clear need of some rebranding.
A new public relations campaign, one that sought to highlight the nutritional benefits of apples, was soon underway. It was a tremendous success. By 1904, the slogan “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” entered the national lexicon and did wonders to reverse the apples’ previously sordid reputation.
By this time period, there were also progressive gains made in the education arena as well. There was mandated public programs nationwide and, best of all, teachers were no longer paid in food and shelter! However the act of receiving an apple remained a symbolic gesture, one that persisted to the point of cliche for many reasons. Apples were abundant, the crop peaked along with the school year, and they were easily portable—making them the fruit of choice for sucking up to the teacher.
This trope manifested itself ad nauseam in pop culture as well. In 1939, Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell had a hit song with “An Apple for the Teacher.” In 1940, the Disney classic Pinocchio saw the puppet-turned-human take an apple to school, just like a real boy would! And the who could forget the classic scene in “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie gifts his teacher a giant-sized fruit basket as the ultimate kiss-up? While the tradition may not persist in the modern era, it’s still a cultural touchstone, one drenched in nostalgia and innocence. And it will probably stay that way for school years to come.
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