The Odd, Fascinating History Behind the Custom of Giving Apples to Teachers

apple sitting on books on desk in classroom
Why Do We Give Apples to Teachers?Getty Images

The end of the school year is in sight and graduation is on the horizon. If your child's teacher went above and beyond to help them succeed in their studies this year, you might consider getting them a special teacher gift — perhaps something that's apple-themed. Teachers have long been associated with apples, even if the idea of actually giving a teacher an apple is more prevalent in pop culture than in reality. In case you're wondering, “Why do we give apples to teachers?” we're digging into that here.

While there is no single, verified origin story that accounts for why apples came to symbolize teachers and education, some sources claim that the tradition dates back to the frontier days of the mid-to-late 19th century. In rural farming communities, educating children and maintaining the schoolhouse was a collective effort.

“Families whose children attended schools were often responsible for housing and feeding frontier teachers, if there was not adequate living space for the teacher in the school itself,” according to PBS.

However, it's unlikely that teachers would've been given apples over a hot meal at this point in history. Many apple trees at this time produced fruit that was far too bitter to eat... but was perfect for making hard cider.

Until grafting apple trees (that is, hybridizing different apple varieties to produce a desired level of sweetness) became common practice, apples were a bitter fruit of ill repute, as they were strongly associated with the alcoholic beverage. Due to the growing temperance movement in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that led to Prohibition, the government and many anti-alcohol activists destroyed apple orchards to ensure the crops would not be used to produce cider.

While bitter apple trees were decimated, sweet apples were spared. Soon after, the apple industry's image got a fortuitous boost, thanks to its role in employing and feeding people during the Great Depression, as well as for popularizing health-conscious slogans such as, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

The tradition of school children bringing apples to their teacher may have also started around this time, however, what may have been intended as a kind gesture could've been interpreted by one's peers as currying favor to get better grades. The term “apple-polisher” emerged in 1926 as a mean-spirited label similar to “suck-up,” according to Merriam-Webster.

In 1939, the film The Star Maker was released, starring Bing Crosby and featuring the duet “An Apple for the Teacher.” The song reached number two on the popular music charts that year and had a lighthearted, swingy tone: “An apple for the teacher / S'always gonna do the trick / Not if you didn't study / Your arithmetic.”

It's possible that the practice of giving apples to teachers looms larger in the collective imagination than it ever did in reality, but the affiliation remains strong to this day. While giving a beloved teacher an apple-accented gift to thank them for tutoring your child is a nice thing to do this time of year, we're sure they'd appreciate an Apple product just as much!

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