Fresh fruit and foraged greenery are common elements in holiday decor, but one iteration we can’t get enough of is fruit fans. Absolutely charming and more easily achieved than you might think, fruit fans have a storied (but misunderstood) past, and we think they deserve a little time in the spotlight. We spoke with Mary Spotswood Underwood, fruit fan expert and Southern entertaining specialist behind à la bonne femme, to learn about the curious history of fruit fans — and how to create one of your own!
The ‘Real’ History of Fruit Fans
Colonial Williamsburg is often credited as the originator of the fruit fan, but that’s a common misconception. While Colonial Williamsburg is responsible for popularizing fruit fans and wreaths in the United States in the early 1900s, they can’t take credit for the concept itself. “In Colonial Williamsburg, they started decorating their homes and businesses to attract visitors and money to the community,” explains Mary Spotswood. “It was the ultimate marketing campaign.”
In the early 20th century, Colonial Williamsburg — designed with history and authenticity in mind — wasn’t getting the traffic they hoped for. They needed to breathe some life (and money) into the community. “Historically, a real house in the 1700s would not have any decorations on the outside. The only houses that would have Christmas decorations were the really wealthy houses that copied European traditions, and those decorations were only on the inside,” says Mary Spotswood. “However, Williamsburg needed to get people to town.”
These efforts resulted in a holiday decorating contest for residents and businesses. Since the holiday trends of the day pointed to modern options like electric lights, the contest limited participants to natural elements that would have been available in Colonial America — fruits, vegetables, greenery, and other foraged items like branches and pine cones. In response, the community looked to a style that originated in 15th-century Europe. The popular “della Robbia” style was inspired by the work of Italian sculptor Lucia della Robbia, whose designs often featured elaborate wreaths and lush borders of greenery and fruit.
The della Robbia style experienced a revival in Europe during the colonial era, so the residents of Colonial Williamsburg used this as inspiration for their designs. This worked especially well, as they could source materials like Virginia apples and fresh greenery both easily and inexpensively. “The irony is that houses in colonial America would never have had these. If someone had put fresh fruit on the outside of their house, they would have been viewed as eccentric and extremely wasteful,” says Mary Spotswood. “In the 18th century, fresh fruit wasn’t easy to come by, and it was very expensive.”
Despite the historical inaccuracy surrounding the original contest, this della Robbia-inspired holiday decor quickly became a signature attraction of Colonial Williamsburg. Today, visitors still flock to the area to enjoy the stunning variety of holiday displays around the community. “It’s bigger and better than ever,” says Mary Spotswood.
Want a Fruit Fan of Your Own?
Though Mary Spotswood has become a go-to source for custom fruit fan designs, not all cities have a Mary Spotswood Underwood. If there’s no specialist in your area, she highly recommends making your own fruit fan. Here’s how:
Step 1: Create your own board — and use it year after year. “The real investment is the board that you’re going to adhere to your house,” says Mary Spotswood, “and it’s really more of a carpenter ask than a florist ask. Once you have that, this is such an easy DIY.”
The board’s size and shape will depend on your house’s style and the look you want to achieve. Use 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch plywood or another soft wood that will readily accept staples. Mary Spotswood’s biggest reminder is to “measure twice, cut once,” and she recommends enlisting the help of a professional to ensure the dimensions are correct and the cut is perfect for hanging.
Step 2: Choose your materials. “Once you have your board, you could easily forage or repurpose your materials and spend very little,” says Mary Spotswood. Think fresh fruit (apples, pears, and pineapples are popular choices), greenery like evergreen branches, magnolia leaves, pine cones, and anything else that strikes your fancy!
Step 3: Map your design. Mary Spotswood recommends carefully mapping your design:
- Flip your board over onto a sawhorse or two stools (to avoid puncturing the surface beneath), arrange your materials the way you want them, and mark each spot with a black marker. Be sure to take a picture of your final design for reference!
- Once your design is finished, you can mark the back of the board with a Sharpie to indicate where each piece should go.
- Use a nail gun (or good old-fashioned nail and hammer) to insert long nails through the back of your board so that the pointed end will face outward, making it easy to attach your fruit to the front of the board. Nails should be at least three inches long or longer, depending on the size of your fruit.
- Traditionally, fruit fan designs are as symmetrical as possible, but more contemporary designs have thrown that rule to the wind. Do what makes you happy!
Step 4: Hang and finish your board. Hang your board before you attach the fruit. Hanging an already-decorated board will be clumsy business, and you run the risk of damaging your design or losing pieces along the way. It’s best to first arrange a base layer of greenery using a staple gun and heavy-duty staples. (Don’t be tempted to use a glue gun — more on that later.) Then, hang your board and finish with larger items like fruit.
The best method for hanging your board will depend on the material of your hanging point. “If it’s a wood pediment, it can be hung like a picture frame, but be sure to use the proper weight hanger,” says Mary Spotswood. “For flat brick surfaces, I screw the board into mortar joints using anchors, being careful not to damage the brick. I do this in two spots, one on each side of the board.” For other types of installation, she recommends consulting a professional installer for the first year or until you feel comfortable hanging it on your own.
Once the board is hung, place your fruit and other large items on the nails you have already secured to complete your design.
Step 5: Keep an eye on it! Once your board is complete, you may need to occasionally adjust or reattach items. After all, these are organic materials!
For a visual explanation, watch Mary Spotswood create a fruit fan HERE.
If DIY really isn’t your speed, she recommends reaching out to a full-service florist in your area — the kind that accepts large-scale custom orders — to discuss a design. If you go this route, be sure to reach out well in advance (to the tune of two months or more) to increase the likelihood that they’ll be able to accommodate your request.
5 DIY Fruit Fan Don’ts
- Don’t hang your board too early. Depending on your chosen materials, your fruit fan’s shelf life is limited — and it’s exposed to the elements. Harsh weather, birds, and insects will eventually take their toll.
- Don’t use juicy fruits. While large, colorful fruits like oranges and pomegranates make a big impact visually, you’ll want to be careful about the juices produced when you hang the fruit. Pomegranate juice will stain, and fruit juice, in general, will attract insects, so be sure to clean up any juice produced while you’re hanging your board. Using slightly-dried fruit is helpful for this, too. (Mary Spotswood likes to use pomegranates for Thanksgiving table decor. By the time she’s ready to make her fruit fan in December, they’re perfectly dried!)
- Don’t be tempted to use a glue gun. Hot glue can burn and melt your materials, changing their shape, and even cold glue guns can be incredibly messy.
- Don’t order online. Fruit fans don’t travel well. Just trust us.
- Don’t use faux fruit. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, and while faux wreaths and other synthetic decor are common and can be very beautiful, Mary Spotswood argues that the whole point of a traditional fruit fan is to use real materials. That’s not to say you shouldn’t incorporate dried or lightly dried real fruit, greenery, or even other organic materials like feathers, pine cones, and branches. But faux fruit is a bit of a faux pas.
If you create a design of your own, we’d love to see it — tag us on Instagram with your design!
All photography provided by Mary Spotswood Underwood unless otherwise noted. To see more of Mary Spotswood’s work, follow her on Instagram or visit à la bonne femme.
For holiday decor, events, recipes, and more — subscribe to our daily emails.
Did you try these celeb-approved DIY beauty tips in 2022?
How Much Does It Cost To Get A Timing Chain Replacement?
How Vivienne Westwood dressed the Sex Pistols and shaped punk