As anyone who grew up in the Ohio River Valley knows, the greatest champion of the fruit was a wandering missionary named John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed. Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and beyond bloomed in the wake of his visits. He was opposed to grafting, the practice of inserting “a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree” to reproduce the same type of apples from the first tree, as described by the University of Minnesota.
Without the human intervention, however, apples remained overwhelmingly bitter and when an anti-alcohol fervor swept the nation in the late 19th century, the plant’s fate was in peril. One of the fiercest of opponents, temperance supporter and axe-wielding activist Carrie Nation, went after both growers and bars, leaving a wake of destruction in her path. Nation was arrested 30 times in a ten-year span for vandalism in the name of her movement, according to PBS.
“But with the help of early public relations pioneers crafting slogans such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” the plant quickly reinvented itself as a healthy foodstuff,” according to the PBS production of Pollan’s work.
Elizabeth Mary Wright’s 1913 book, Rustic Speech and Folk-lore, recorded the use of apples as part of common kitchen cures. “For example,” she writes, “Ait a happle avore gwain to bed, An’ you’ll make the doctor beg his bread…or as the more popular version runs: An apple a day Keeps the doctor away.”
Held up as the paragon of moral fastidiousness, teachers, particularly on the frontier, frequently received sustenance from their pupils. “Families whose children attended schools were often responsible for housing and feeding frontier teachers,” according to a PBS special, titled “Frontier House, Frontier Life.” An apple could show appreciation for a teacher sometimes in charge of more than 50 students.
Apples continued to be a favorite way to curry favor even after the practical purpose of feeding teachers disappeared. Bing Crosby’s 1939 “An Apple for the Teacher,” explains the persuasive allure of the fruit. “An apple for the teacher will always do the trick,” sings Crosby, “when you don’t know your lesson in arithmetic.”