Trash or Treasure?

That's no pineapple welcoming visitors to Federal Hill


Many of us in Rhode Island are familiar with the gateway arch overhanging Atwells Avenue on Federal Hill. Many people think a pineapple is suspended in the center because a pineapple symbolizes “welcome,” right?

Well, there are two things wrong here. Firstly, the object suspended on the arch on Federal Hill is “La Pigna” or “pinecone” in Italian. The fruit of the pine is the Italian symbol of welcome, abundance and or quality. Federal Hill has had a predominately Italian population since the late 1890’s. In many countries and civilizations the pinecone has had strong symbolic meaning including vital force, rebirth, immortality, fertility and regeneration, as well as other divine concepts. Think of the “Tree of Life” concept.

Since ancient times the pinecone has also been used in the decorative arts. Pinecones are everywhere and anyone who has visited the Vatican has seen the huge bronze “Pigna” (pictured above) which once decorated a fountain in Ancient Rome near the Temple of Isis.

So what about the pineapple? Early Spanish and Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to have contact with pineapples. They were native to South America but had been introduced to the Caribbean by the Carib Indians. Although it went by several different names, it was the English who called it “pineapple”. Pineapples resembled the pinecones they knew from home.

Pineapples were exotic and therefore expensive. According to some sources found, a pineapple could cost the equivalent of $8000 in the colonies. So because most people could not afford to buy the fruit, they bought objects in the shape of pineapples. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that James Dole built his pineapple plantation in Hawaii, which at one time was the largest producer of the world’s pineapples. The pineapple was not a common sight until the 1930’s from when the earliest evidence was found of the pineapple being associated with hospitality and a symbol of “welcome”.

Karen Waterman is a fine art, antique furniture and decorative arts appraiser in the East Bay area and will answer as many questions regarding your “hidden treasures” as possible. By sending a letter or email with a question you give full permission for use in the column. Names, addresses or e-mail will not be published and photos will be returned if requested. Send e-mails (digital photos preferred ) to


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.