How England got its curvy cucumbers straightened out

In the mid-19th century, England was no country for crooked cucumbers. A curly, misshapen, or discolored specimen might be tossed to the pigs, who certainly wouldn’t mind. But by 1845, more perfect cucurbits were within reach. To straighten out a wayward cucumber, a 19th-century British gardener might have told you, you just needed to give it a little love. And maybe a giant glass straightjacket.

Long, tubular, and made of glass, the cucumber straightener is perhaps the most simple and superfluous gardening tool in history. But in the eyes of British gardeners, it rectified an intolerable perversity: a hooking, twisting cucumber.

It wasn’t until the iconic cucumber sandwich became popular among Queen Victoria’s family that the produce began to gain prestige. Subsequently, the delicate sandwich became an iconic teatime snack in British high society, and the cucumber, suddenly, was in vogue. To ensure the fruit could be slipped easily between slices of bread, it needed to be sliced thinly and evenly. Which called for a straighter cucumber.

British engineer George Stephenson began erecting vineries, pineries, apiaries, melon houses, and forcing houses, where he grew tropical fruits and vegetables. He vowed to grow pineapples the size of pumpkins, and engineered melon baskets from wire gauze to assist their growth. He was largely successful, too, winning a prize for his pines, and growing nationally acclaimed grapes.

His cucumbers, however, gave him trouble. Despite adjusting temperature, light, and the position from which they would grow, Stephenson’s cucumbers would relentlessly curl. Frustrated, the civil engineer crafted hollow glass cylinders in his Newcastle steam engine factory for his Tapton House garden.

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