The onion of commerce, Allium cepa, is believed to have derived from A. oschanini in central Asia . However, wild onions were likely abundant in many regions all over the world, and widely consumed before the invention of farming. Some researchers have found evidence pointing towards onions first being grown in Iran and West Pakistan, and most researchers agree that the onion has been cultivated for at least five thousand years . There is discrepancy regarding the origins (both time and place) of the onion due the vegetable’s small size and the tendency of its tissues to leave little or no trace. It is believed that Alexander the Great transported the onion from Egypt to Greece in the fourth century B.C., and to the rest of Europe through his conquests . Christopher Columbus and his crew, who in 1494 planted onions in Hispaniola, likely assisted in spreading the cultivated onion to the New World .
Many of the historical sources citing onions have pointed towards religious or medicinal uses. In Egypt, onions, traced back to 3500 B.C., were considered an object of worship, as they symbolized eternity through their anatomy, namely that of a circle within a circle . Paintings from tombs in Egypt picture priests holding onions or onions covering altars to the gods. Moreover, onions were buried along with Egyptian Pharaohs—most notably, King Ramses IV (died 1160 B.C.) was laid in his tomb with onions in his eye sockets . Medicinal uses of onions were noted in the Charaka Samhita, a medical treatise from India, in sixth century B.C., by Dioscorides, a Greek physician, in the first century A.D , and by Hippocrates, a Greek physician, in the fourth and fifth centuries. Hippocrates suggested that the onion could be used as a medication that “soften[s] and initiate[s] powerful cleaning” . In Native American folklore, onions were used in syrup for colds, for earache treatment, to destroy germs, to draw out flu through placement in a sick room, and as food (raw or cooked) . As components in food, onions became widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, but were not only “poor man’s food”; rather, onions were even included in “The fame of Cury,” a cookery book written by the chef to King Richard II of England . Moreover, onions, as claimed in the 1594 Present Remedies against the Plague, were believed to absorb all infection in foul air . In London during the seventeenth century, some thought that a ship filled with peeled onions, set down the Thames, would carry away the polluted air of the city . There is some legitimacy in the therapeutic claims of onions put forth by these ancient doctors and by folklore, seeing as modern scientific research has concluded that onions contain thiosulphinate, a compound effective in killing many bacteria .
In the image titled “Buy my 4 ropes of hard onyons,” by Marcellus Laroon the Elder, a street-crier hoists upon his right shoulder a stick from which four ropes of onions hang. This engraving was included in a series of prints commissioned by bookseller Pierce Tempest, named “Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life.” The earliest mention of the street-cries or trade-cries (the phrases which peddlers screamed to promote their goods) was made by Dan John Lydgate, a monk who lived in the late fourteenth to fifteenth centuries . The peddlers, competing in noise level for the most customers on the unpaved streets of London, were thought of as lesser than stall-keepers . During the reign of Elizabeth the First, an act of common council declared that the open streets and lanes of the city were not a place for peddlers and others to make their trade. This disregard only grew stronger during Charles the First’s reign, as authorities began to view hagglers and peddlers as “unruly people,” thinking that they presented themselves “whereby to live a more easy life than by labour” . But a street-crier’s lifestyle was by no means “easy.” For instance, street-criers suffered “chronic inflammatory conditions of the pharynx and larynx,” sometimes even suffering a complete loss of voice .
The “evil” presented by the nature of street-criers’ work was combated in 1694, when the common council, seeing the peddlers as rivals to shopkeepers, “threatened the pedlars…with the terrors of the laws against rogues and sturdy beggars, the least penalty being whipping” . “Buy my 4 ropes of onyons," created in 1688, details this growing sense of prejudice towards street-criers. Immediately apparent in this engraving is a sense of motion, as the onion-seller steps forward with his left foot, muscles taut in his right leg, perhaps in order to come forth as the most persuasive peddler. But, at the same time, he ducks his head towards his left shoulder—possibly in an effort to present himself as unthreatening. He stuffs a hand in his left pocket—perhaps to protect any money he has earned—while his right hand supports the base of the pole carrying his ropes of onions. There is symmetry in the piece, with extremities of the left acting towards motion and monetary wealth, while extremities of the right serve to support the movements of the body. This symmetry is enhanced by the two ropes of onions that serve to frame the seller’s portrait.
While there is symmetry in the image—and thus a sense of stability—disorder is evident upon closer glance. The onion-seller’s shirtsleeves hang open, rumpled around his wrists; his hat is tattered around the edges; his face is pierced by exhaustion and pain as his mouth opens to add his own voice to the discordant sound of the city, that is, the sound of hawkers and peddlers. He cries, “Come buy my ropes of onions, ho!” as he strives to make a wage . But all the while, the onions dangle from his shoulder, weighing him down with their dense and bulbous nature. Each rope contains roughly twenty-two to twenty-four onions, for a total of nearly a hundred onions!
Seeing that the late seventeenth century London population disdained the street-criers, this same disdainful attitude may have translated to the onions themselves, looking upon these wares as poor man’s food. A proverb dated to 1611 reflects the idea of onions as poor man’s food: “If thou hast not a Capon, feed on an onion” . From this point of view, an onion is a poor man’s food, but still holds some value as something with good flavor. Other proverbs oppose this interpretation. In 1500, the phrase “not worth an onion” was coined, suggesting that the onion perhaps had a less than tangible value . This notion was present also in Spanish culture—Don Quixote, the protagonist of a 1605 Spanish novel of the same name, advises his squire Sancho to refrain from eating garlic and onions, to avoid exposing one’s low birth . Here, onions become a mark of poverty, something to be hidden and shamed. But roughly two centuries later, Sydney Smith suggests, “Let onion atoms lurk within the bowl, And scare-suspected, animate the whole” . In this sense, onions retain some magical quality in their ability to spark savory tastes even in the most miniscule amounts. Thus emerges a very dynamic perception of the onion, a perception caught between the fear of societal opinion—seeing as this adaptable and cheap vegetable was affordable for all classes—and the recognition of the value in simplicity—seeing that this very onion provided flavor, nutrition, and medicinal benefits. This double-edged perception is reflected in the engraving's juxtaposition of the onion seller’s tattered appearance with the clean and ordered ropes of onions.
--by Katherine Sadaniantz
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