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A botanical drawing of a pumpkin with vines, flower, and fruit
Cucurbita pepo, from Icones plantarum medico-oeconomico-technologicarum cum earum fructus ususque descriptione =Abbildungen aller medizinisch-ökonomisch-technologischen Gewächse mit der Beschreibung ihres Gebrauches und Nutzens. By Ferdinand Bernhard Vietz. 1804 Biodiversity Heritage Library (contributed by the Missouri Botanical Garden)

A Brief History of Pumpkin Pie in America

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Today’s post is written by science librarian and culinary specialist Alison Kelly. She has provided her expertise in a number of Inside Adams blog posts related to food history and cooking such as Early American Beer, and Early Mixology Books.

In A Description of New Netherland,  Adriaen van der Donck, an early landowner and the first lawyer in New Netherland, presented a wonderfully detailed description of the natural and cultural worlds of that Dutch colony and its environs in 1655. His observations on  squashes and pumpkins, which take up much of the chapter on “Vegetables”, include the comment that  “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.”

The “English” referred to in van der Donck’s description were the English colonists in New England, where pumpkins were a staple of the diet. New Englanders brewed pumpkin ale, they added dried pumpkin to flips, and they stewed pumpkin as a vegetable.  However, it was their pumpkin pie that, over the following centuries, went on to become an edible icon.

Pumpkin is native to North America;  it was brought to Europe as part of the “Columbian Exchange”. But, as van der Donck noted, the pumpkins growing in the New World were generally more plentiful, larger and tastier than the pumpkins produced in 17th century England or France:  “pumpkins grow with little or no cultivating. They are so sweet and dry that for the purpose of preparing them water and vinegar are added before stewing them in the same way as apples…” .

Although pumpkin was cultivated—and pies filled with pumpkin were being made—in England at this time, they generally contained layers of sliced (sometimes fried) pumpkin, combined with sugar, spices and apple slices and baked between two crusts.  This type of pie appears to have been made by some of the early colonists as well—but, by 1796, when Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, the first cookbook written by an American and published in America, appeared, pumpkin pie had evolved into a familiar form that we would recognize today.

Black and white photograph of gathering pumpkins in Yakima Valley, WA, c1904
Gathering in the pumpkins in the Yakima Valley, Wash, c1904.

In American Cookery, Amelia Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin” pudding. This pudding, baked in a pie crust, contained a filling which was not built from sliced pumpkin, but more like more like a custard:  Amelia Simmons’ pumpkin  pies, like today’s, were made with stewed and strained pumpkin, eggs, sugar, cream or milk,  and sometimes the addition of  molasses. Flavoring was added with some of the spices popular in the colonies at that time—ginger, mace and/or nutmeg and allspice.

This basic format continued to be embraced by American cooks. Mary Randolph, in The Virginia Housewife (1824), baked a pumpkin pie along the same lines—with the addition of “a wine glass of brandy.” Her Pumpkin Pudding employs only a bottom crust, with some decorative scraps of pastry laid across the top:

Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dry; put a paste round the edges and in the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and lay them across the top and bake it nicely.

Similarly, Eliza Leslie, the American author of many popular 19th century cookbooks, offered a recipe for  “pumpkin pudding” in Miss Leslie’s Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats (1827). This pudding is what we would today call a one-crust or open-face pie, employing a bottom lining of “puff paste” rather than the “common paste” used for her double-crusted pies.  It was most likely cooked in a deep pie plate or even a pudding pan instead of a shallow pie plate.

Poster shows a drawing of a turkey and pumpkins around a photo of a woman in a pilgrim dress preparing squash.
Harper’s Bazar Thanksgiving, 1892.

In a relatively short time, pumpkin pie had become a cultural icon and a requirement for every Thanksgiving table. Odes to the pie were published in newspapers and ladies’ magazines, agricultural journals and children’s books. A poem, by an author identified only as MCS and titled The Pumpkin Pie, published in the Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture, (Nov. 30, 1850) concludes with this inspirational stanza:

But here beneath bright Freedom’s sky
        A land that valor won,
 We’ll sing our famous Pumpkin Pie,
     From morn till setting sun!

Another poem celebrating the pumpkin pie, and still familiar today, is Lydia Maria Child’s “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day” also known as “Over the River and Through the Wood,”  which first appeared in  the 1844 children’s book Flowers for the Children.

Pumpkin pie poem. Over the river, and through the woods. Now grandmother's cap I spy! Hurra for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurra for the pumpkin pie!
Lydia Maria Child, Flowers for children. Part II, For children from four to six years old,1844: p. 28.
Rare Book and Special Collections, Library of Congress.

Perhaps partly because of its iconic status, pumpkin pie appears to have changed very little over the following 100 years, as illustrated in this recipe from a cookbook published in Iowa in 1876 (“76.” A Cook Book, by the Ladies of Plymouth Church, Des Moines, Iowa: p. 122):

New England Pumpkin Pie
Mrs. A. Y. Rawson

Peel and cut your pumpkin into small pieces and put into a kettle with a very little water; cook from six to eight hours, stirring frequently to prevent burning. When done, rub through a colander. One quart of pumpkin, five pints of rich milk, four eggs, three cups of sugar, one scant teaspoon of ginger and 4 tsp of cinnamon.

Typical of early charity cookbooks, there’s no hand-holding  offered to the reader of this recipe, nor details on the crust, the oven temperature, or the steps in preparation, as it was assumed that the cook would know how to go about the project.

The reign of the pumpkin pie continued on into the 20th century. In his Grocer’s Encyclopedia of 1911, a magnificent compilation of information on every kind of food available in American markets at the turn of the 20th century,  Artemus Ward says of the pumpkin:

…the most highly prized of the squash family, grown in many varieties and varying in size from that of a large orange to a weight of fifty or more pounds. It is occasionally cooked as a vegetable, but its principle use is in the form of ‘pumpkin pies (p.515).’

Photograph of a man and a dog harvesting pumpkins in a field.
From the Grocer’s Encyclopedia, 1911: p.515

Despite various trendy takes on the original—pumpkin  chiffon pie, praline pumpkin pie, pineapple pumpkin pie, pumpkin whoopee pies, pumpkin ice cream pie, pumpkin Alaska pie—the essential pumpkin pie remained true to its origins: mashed and cooked pumpkin, milk or cream, eggs, sugar and spices, and a pastry crust.  But, at the same time, almost everything about pumpkin pie has changed radically since Amelia Simmons’ recipes were published.

One obvious change occurred at around the turn of the 19th century, when the rapid expansion of the canning industry brought canned pumpkin to every market.  Many cooks were no longer willing—or able—to “stew pumpkin all day” and quickly embraced the canned product for its convenience. By the 1920s, canned pumpkin was a staple, along with canned cranberry sauce, in every grocer’s seasonal advertising.

1911 Newspaper advertisement for Lake Shore canned pumpkins.
Advertisement from Jan. 10, 1911 Salem News, Salem, Ohio

Publications from the early years of the 20th century provide ample evidence that the canned pumpkin industry was already booming.  In 1905, an article by W. F. McClure on “Horticulture: the Pumpkin Pie Industry” in Ohio Farmer, described the state of the industry there:

In northeastern Ohio, large quantities of pumpkins are raised for canning purposes…where is located one of the largest canneries for pumpkins on the American continent. More than 2,000 tons of this product are often used at a cannery in one season…a field that will yield 20 tons to the acre is considered excellent. ..the price ranging in different years from $2.50 to $5 per ton. A ton of pumpkins will make about 1200 pounds when canned.

Commercially canned pumpkin was not only convenient, but it was also generally safer than home-canned pumpkin. In “To Live Well and Cheaply,” (Grocer’s Magazine, March 3, 1913: p. 11), John A. Lee, chairman of the National Canned Foods Week committee, writes that “the modern cannery is more sanitary than a dainty woman’s kitchen.”  And in the same publication, Clyde Wilson gives his thoughts “On the Canning of Pumpkin:”

The canner of food has brought no finer art than the preserving of pumpkin in convenient tins… The canning of pumpkin is an enterprise of greater magnitude than most people imagine. One packer had on his grounds at one time last season 4,000 tons of this gorgeous fruit – a novel sight.

Advertisement for the Colborne rimmer and trimmer machine profitable pumpkin pies, 1920
Bakers Review October, 1920.

At the same time as commercially canned pumpkin was radically changing home pumpkin-pie making, even more convenient and time-saving options were becoming available. By the first years of the 20th century, many consumers had the option of choosing from an array of standardized commercially baked goods, including breads, cakes and pies, as industrialization brought new milling and baking equipment, and, eventually, electrically powered machinery and ovens.

City newspapers of the late 1800s describe large bakeries or “pie-factories” which turned out thousands of pies for the supply of restaurants, hotels, boarding-houses, smaller bakeries, and private families.  Finished pies from these bakeries were loaded into pie-wagons, and later, trucks, to be delivered throughout the city.

Pumpkin pies were made seasonally, and the advent of the pumpkin pie-making season was often announced in print.  “The Pie and its Devotees: The Season for Pumpkin and Cranberry at Hand,” reads a notice in The New York Times on September 14, 1895. Pumpkin pie season continued to be deemed newsworthy into the 20th century.  One such headline from the New York Herald Tribune of Sept. 17, 1937 informs readers that   “Pumpkin Pie Season Opens Tomorrow When 7,000 Pies Go on Sale in 31 Retail Stores.”

Black and white photograph of a variety of pies including pumpkin pie at a thanksgiving dinner.
Pies at thanksgiving dinner. Photograph by Jack Delano, FSA/OWI Collection, 1940.

By the early 1960s, Thanksgiving advertising featured not only canned pumpkin pie mix and bakery pies, but ready-to-serve frozen pies. Convenient and affordable, frozen pies caught on quickly—and they continue to be popular today.

Magazines and newspaper food sections  promoted frozen pies as “failure-proof.”  A column in the Bucks County Courier Times (Nov. 12, 1968) promised they would deliver “the goodness and aroma of traditional home-baked pies without preliminary effort.  Not only tremendous time-savers, frozen pies assure the ultimate in freshness, flavor and convenience.”  To  dress up the pie, and in a nod to its New England heritage,  it’s finished with a layer of Pilgrim’s Whipped Ginger Topping.

Even with the wide availability, popularity and convenience of both frozen and bakery pies, many people continued to bake their own pumpkin pies.  For some late 20th century cooks, that may have meant stewing a pie pumpkin, but many baby boomers grew up associating pumpkin pie with the recipe on the back of the pumpkin can, the one with evaporated milk, eggs, canned pumpkin, a prebaked crust—and pumpkin pie spice.

Pumpkin pie spice had become ubiquitous by the middle of the 20th century. What was in these packages of pie spice? Despite countless variations, the mix usually includes some combination of ginger, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon or allspice  – all of which we might recognize as the same spices widely used in colonial American cooking,  although they were probably measured out  more generously than they are today.  Closing the circle with a reference to the now almost mythical pie of colonial days, an advertisement in an Ironwood, Michigan paper from 1930 promotes  “T&T Mixed Pumpkin Pie Spice: pure spices blended from an old New England recipe.”

Comments (6)

  1. Fascinating post! The popularity of pumpkin pie season and the craze that surrounded it, makes me think of the current wildly popular pumpkin spice latte. It seems that some flavors endure through the ages!

    This article makes me want to stew my own pumpkin spices lol say to prepare a pie. Thanks for all the research!

  2. As a baby boomer myself, i use the canned pumpkin pumpkin for my homemade pumpkin pies, but with a 21st century twist, make them vegetarian by substituting the eggs with soft tofu. I recommend using some brown sugar to get a richer color and which harks back to the original 1600s molasses flavor!
    Bon appetit!

  3. No need to stew your pumpkin – super easy to microwave/cook a small pie pumpkin.
    1-Find a microwave safe glass dish ( I use 2 deep storage dishes- one as the bottom and one for the lid)
    2-Pop off the stem, and into that soft spot, use a sharp knife to cut all the way through a tiny triangle or square and push it into the pumpkin. (No need to pry the piece out)
    3-set the pumpkin into the dish (mine barely fits), add a tablespoon of water, put on the lid, and carefully place in microwave oven. (Not only does my pumpkin barely fit in the glass dish with the lid on, the glass dish with the lid barely fits in my microwave, there’s maybe a half inch clearance at the top.)
    4- cook on power 6, for 6 minutes,
    *****You must be super cautious at this point****
    5- with hot mitts, take the dish out, and test the pumpkin by poking with a sharp knife. If done the knife will easily go all the way in.
    6- if you think it needs more time, put it back in, on power 6 for 3or 4 minutes.
    7- take it out of the microwave, take the glass lid off, and let the pumpkin sit till cool.
    8- when you can easily handle it, cut the top 1/2 off, flip it over, and gently remove the seeds and stringy stuff. The pulp will be quite soft, so go easy on the scraping.
    9-You’ll see how easy it is to get the pumpkin pulp off the skin – it should almost fall off. Gently scrape the skin with a spoon to get every bit.
    10- repeat with the other half.
    11- mash with a potato masher and you’re ready to make a pie or muffins.
    I’ve been getting about 2 or 3 cups of pumpkin from the small pumpkins at my local grocery store.
    My family’s favorite pumpkin pie is One 15oz can of Libby’s canned pumpkin with 2 cups( another can) of fresh pumpkin, double the recipe from the can except replace the 2nd can of evaporated milk with an equal amount of whole milk.

  4. I tried an old version that you refer to as follows:

    “Although pumpkin was cultivated—and pies filled with pumpkin were being made—in England at this time, they generally contained layers of sliced (sometimes fried) pumpkin, combined with sugar, spices and apple slices and baked between two crusts.”

    I made a version of the above type of pie with the recipe coming from

    “Apple Pumpkin Pie From 1941”

    Friends, you would not believe how wonderful this pie is.

  5. Another easy way to cook a “sugar” pumpkin is after removing the stem, cut the pumpkin in half and remove seeds etc. Turn each half upside down on a dish and microwave one at a time.

  6. My sister and I traveled from Ohio to Adelaide, South Australia to have an American Thanksgiving with our brother’s Australian family. He emigrated there in 1972 . He wanted a pumpkin pie like he remembered growing up. So we packed Libby’s canned pumpkin and a small can of pumpkin pie spice. The customs officer at the airport took our spice container and questioned us about it. He kept it because..”Who ever heard of putting pumpkin in a pie!” We didn’t even try to explain that every American was very familiar with pumpkin pie. Later, we bought the spices we needed and the pie was cooked and served at the large family gathering. This was a first for everyone except for us. Pumpkin is popular as side dish there when cut into chunks cooked, baked or steamed but not used in cookies or lattes as flavoring or in a pie. One cousin asked if we made dessert pies out of a potato too? Well…yes we do from yams or sweet potatoes. He just rolled his eyes!

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