It might now be a staple of every supermarket on every high street, but once upon a time, the pineapple was a symbol of exoticism and exclusivity. This was initially down to Charles II, who used pineapples to emphasise his military, political and economic power.


In 1668, Britain and France were at loggerheads over control of the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts. The king entertained the French ambassador over dinner, the highlight of which was a pyramid of fruit, topped by a pineapple. The fruit had only recently appeared on British shores and its inclusion at the dinner was at Charles’s behest. He had ordered that one be imported from the colony of Barbados and proceeded to use it as a visual display of Britain’s global prominence to France and its representative that evening. Charles referred to it as ‘King Pine’.

The well-to-do quarters of British society would later replicate the king’s admiration for pineapples and, during the Georgian era, enterprising individuals began to grow the fruit despite Britain’s inclement climate. Those that were successfully cultivated came with a sizeable price tag – in the region of £60, around £11,000 in today’s money. To merely eat such a prized commodity would have been too decadent. Instead, those who owned a pineapple refused to cut into it, preferring to show it off at a succession of social gatherings until it had rotted beyond recognition. Pineapple owners were also known to carry their fruit around as they went about their day to indicate their status, a practice that prompted the arrival of pineapple thieves.



The wearing of eye-catching, status-defining wigs has been a near-constant feature of various societies since classical times. In ancient Egypt, a person’s social class was easily identified by what material was used in the manufacture of the hairpiece. Those from the upper echelons of Egyptian society wore wigs made from human hair, while those worn by lower standing citizens were created from wool or vegetable fibres. Women’s wigs were enhanced by jewellery; the more intricate and/or plentiful the adornments, the higher one’s place on the social hierarchy.

The wearing of wigs became fashionable in western Europe with the dawning of the Renaissance, especially when the prematurely balding French king Louis XIV sought assistance in giving the impression of a full head of hair. The nobility of France followed his example, as did his English cousin Charles II. In Georgian England, particularly during the latter half of the
18th century, wigs became a true signifier of social class. With a common-or-garden wig costing around a week’s wages of the average middle-class Londoner, richer individuals plumped for higher quality hairpieces that could cost as much as £9,000 in today’s money. The term ‘bigwig’ was born.

French king Louis XIV wearing a voluminous wig
The balding French king Louis XIV relied on wigs to fool others into believing he had naturally luscious long locks. (Image by Getty Images)

Hand-copied books

Before the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, a book was a rarefied object, one of high value both financially and socially. Painstakingly handwritten on parchment, these manuscripts were exclusively the possession of the Church, the wealthier educational establishments or powerful individuals. For the latter, owning one such book offered a level of respect from their peers; owning an entire library of them bestowed an overwhelming degree of social standing. Not only did such a collection signal the depth of one’s wealth, but also – presuming the collector had read them – the extent of their intellect and knowledge.

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A medieval illustration thought to depict monk and scholar the Venerable Bede (c673–735) writing his Life of Saint Cuthbert
A medieval illustration thought to depict monk and scholar the Venerable Bede (c673–735) writing his Life of Saint Cuthbert. (Image by Getty Images)

It is perhaps correct that these recreations were prized and coveted. Depending on the length of the text being reproduced, some handwritten books could take beyond 20 years to create. A commission might be near enough the life’s work of a scribe, many of whom were monks hand-copying ancient religious texts. The scribe’s toil was arduous, as the historian Mary Winnifred noted. “It is hard to bend the neck and furrow parchment for twice three hours.”

The exclusive nature of book ownership meant that the exchange of ideas and information was as closely guarded as the manuscripts that disappeared under lock and key when no one was around to show them off to. But the arrival of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440 precipitated the broadening of book ownership. Although the hand-copied manuscripts retained a high degree of their value, a revolution was underway. By the end of the 15th century, 15 million books had been produced using Gutenberg’s famous invention.


Cabinets of curiosities

Sometimes, a cabinet of curiosities was just what it sounds like – a piece of furniture, inside of which all manner of small-scale curios were displayed. The grander ones took the form of entire rooms, allowing the exhibition of much larger objects. As Giovanni Aloi, from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, explains, cabinets of curiosities were “the aristocrat’s answer for those who sought to enliven the opulent but dimly lit parties thrown during the Italian Renaissance”. The intellectual inquisitiveness of the cabinet’s owner was on display to their peers. The more exotic the exhibit, the greater the respect that one would achieve. That was the simple equation.

The objects contained within such cabinets often drew from natural history, art, religion, archaeology and geology. Wealth enabled the most impressive collections, and it was thus unsurprising that monarchs across Europe boasted the most eye-catching curios. One of England’s most prominent cabinet owners was Elias Ashmole, whose huge collection of botanic and alchemic objects led to the establishment of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1683. The Ashmolean precipitated the demise of cabinets of curiosities, enabling the general public to observe the fascinating holdings, not just those attending high-society social functions.



Sugar first arrived in Europe from the Middle East during the Middle Ages and very rapidly became a highly prized substance. Expensive to cultivate due to labour and transportation costs, it was only really available to those in the higher strata of European society. Aided by its supposedly medicinal properties, sugar was in high demand and the wealthy commissioned confectioners to create fabulous concoctions over which party-going nobility could marvel.

Even when large-scale sugar plantations were established in the colonial West Indies, the price of sugar largely held steady and so remained unaffordable to those lower down the social spectrum – at least initially. The wealthy simply accumulated more, the act of which helped maintain social standing. Indeed, chronic tooth decay was welcomed as a sign of substantial, and therefore supposedly admirable, sugar consumption.



Follies – those ornamental structures designed to appear like buildings but which have little or no practical use – were de rigueur among the land-owning classes of western Europe from the late 16th century onwards, right into the Victorian era and beyond. The only real purpose they served was to showcase the wealth of those who had commissioned them, along with displaying their taste and artistic sense – or otherwise.

A famous example of such a folly is the Needle’s Eye, an archway in the shape of a pyramid that stands in the grounds of Wentworth Woodhouse in South Yorkshire. Legend has it that its construction was due to an alcohol-fuelled bet accepted by the estate’s owner, the Marquis of Rockingham, in the mid-18th century. Having drunkenly announced he could drive a carriage through the eye of a needle, he promptly ordered the construction of this 14-metre-high structure with a sufficiently wide archway. It was a great expense to make to win an ill-conceived bet.

Of course, the word ‘folly’ suggests a foolish idea without worth or purpose. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “an ill-conceived, extravagant building or residence which often proves too costly to finish building or is otherwise ridiculed”. The Marquis of Rockingham was one such builder.



The tulip embodied stature long before its introduction to western Europe in the 16th century. The flower’s origins are located in the Middle East and it was first cultivated in Persia around the turn of the 11th century. In the Ottoman empire, sultans placed a tulip in their turbans as a symbol of prestige. Indeed, it was this practice, along with the general shape of the flower, that led to its name: ‘tulipan’ was a common Turkish pronunciation of ‘turban’.

Suleiman the Magnificent sniffing a tulip
Suleiman the Magnificent promoted the tulip as a symbol of prestige long before the ‘Tulipmania’ of the 17th century. (Images by Getty Images)

Although not merely the preserve of powerful sultans, the tulip was nonetheless revered during the Ottoman era and anyone found guilty of selling tulips beyond the city limits of Constantinople could be sent into exile. However, this did not prevent their passage to Europe, and in the late 16th century, some tulip bulbs made their way into the hands of the head gardener at the Austrian emperor’s residence in Vienna. This horticulturalist, Carolus Clusius, not only began to cultivate the flower, but also wrote an influential book about it, thus spreading intrigue and interest in tulips.

Clusius would later take up a prestigious post at a Dutch university and thereafter the United Provinces (later known as the Netherlands) became synonymous with the flower. ‘Tulipmania’ broke out in Amsterdam in the mid-1630s when, fuelled by French enthusiasm for rare bulbs, prices skyrocketed. Demand for such a recognisable status symbol was so strong that a single bulb could change hands for more than the price of a townhouse on the banks of one of Amsterdam’s canals.


Cacao beans

Used as currency in Meso-American culture around 1000 BC, cacao beans were first brought to Europe at the beginning of the 16th century and used to make drinking chocolate. Although the beverage was enjoyed across the classes in Aztec and Mayan society, in Europe it was the exclusive preserve of the elite, with the middle classes preferring coffee and the poor classes still largely drinking alcohol. In the 17th century, Louis XIV helped popularise drinking chocolate within the French court and, over time, it became the beverage of choice for the aspirant bourgeoisie seeking higher status in society. However, this growing appeal – along with the introduction of cacao trees in the West Indies and West Africa – meant chocolate gradually lost its position as the exclusive refreshment of the aristocracy.


Board games

Nowadays, every house has a plentiful supply of board games, usually fashioned cheaply from plastic and cardboard. It wasn’t always thus. In ancient Egypt and the Middle East, the ownership of board games – particularly those constructed from the finest materials – could signify a person’s importance in that society. They were also offered as gifts, either to influence those in power or as part of royal burials.

During her lifetime, Queen Nefertari of Egypt owned a highly decorative version of the board game Senet, while another game, named the Royal Game of Ur in the 20th century after its discovery in southern Iraq, was another popular pastime. Not dissimilar to backgammon, five Royal Game of Ur boards were excavated by the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 1930s. The most elaborate example, one that clearly belonged to someone of high ranking, was decorated with shells, red limestone and the blue rock known as lapis lazuli.


The colour purple

Purple has been a colour denoting wealth, prestige and importance since antiquity. In both ancient Greece and Egypt, clothing dyed this shade was the preserve of emperors and kings. The more purple items that you owned and wore, the higher your position in society. The Roman empire had strict laws over how the colour could be worn and by whom. In 40 AD, the erratic emperor Caligula ordered the assassination of King Ptolemy of Mauretania, a move many believe to have been provoked by Ptolemy’s wearing of a purple cloak, which Caligula interpreted as a threat to his rule. The Romans also used purple in some of their important buildings and statues, thanks to the colour of the igneous rock called imperial porphyry.

Since then, purple has continued to be regarded as a signifier of high standing because of its rarity; it was largely only harvested from the glands of sea snails. Its exclusivity declined from
the mid-19th century onwards, thanks to the work of a teenage chemist named William Henry Perkin. While attempting to discover a cure for malaria, the Englishman inadvertently created a synthetic version of purple – called mauveine – which was then widely used as a clothing dye. Purple no longer belonged just to the elite.

Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history


This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed