Going Bananas for Historical Images: A Visual History of the United Fruit Co.

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One of the most fascinating topics I studied as an undergrad was about the sinister role the United Fruit Company, known today as Chiquita Banana, played in shaping the history of Central and Latin America. The fruit followed a long, and complicated path to become the “world’s fourth major food, after rice, wheat and milk.”[1]. It’s bizarre to think of the innocent banana toppling governments and becoming a symbol of U.S. global imperialism, but the yellow fruit certainly has a checkered past!

Wear-Ever United Fruit Company “Great White Fleet” cooking utensil advertisement from 1920 source
Notice that this this advertisement mentions the United Fruit Company’s ‘Great White Fleet.” What do you think the relationship is between a cruise line and the fruit company?
The advertisement is actually for ‘Wear-Ever’ Aluminum Cooking Utensils. Do you think viewers of this ad would have known what the advertisement was for, and would the average person have been familiar enough with the Great White Fleet’s cooking equipment?

Citation: Evening public ledger. (Philadelphia [Pa.]), 02 March 1920. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045211/1920-03-02/ed-1/seq-17/

Workers loading bananas onto rail cars in Costa Rica source
What is the point of view of the person who captured this image? Are they advertising for the United Fruit Company?
From the caption we know this picture was taken in the banana fields of Costa Rica. Notice the different clothing the subjects of the image are wearing. What can we infer about the power dynamics between different individuals at the banana fields? How might the conditions Costa Rican banana field workers faced differ from that of Western-European/Americans?

Citation: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1900). Loading Bananas into Plantation Cars for Transportation, Banana Fields, Costa Rica, C. A. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-9c55-d471-e040-e00a180654d7

Three men on boats transporting bananas to markets in Panama source
The previous image showed men loading bananas into a rail car, and here these men are floating bananas in a boat. Are these men transporting bananas for consumption in the U.S., or locally? What can we infer about the importance of bananas as a food source in the region?
The individual at the front of the boat appears to have a pot with food behind him. I wonder how long these men have been on this boat. What types of infrastructure would need to be in place to transport the fruit such long distances locally and to the U.S. without rotting?

Citation: Carpenter, F. G. Three men in a boat transporting bananas to the city markets in Panama. Panama, None. [Between 1890 and 1923] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/89713947/.

You can learn more about United Fruit Company by listening to this episode of Throughline on NPR.

[1] Kurtz-Phelan, Daniel. 2020. “Big Fruit”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/books/review/Kurtz-Phelan-t.html.

2 Replies to “Going Bananas for Historical Images: A Visual History of the United Fruit Co.”

  1. I remember learning about this in high school. I often think about how many opportunists took taking over and monopolizing produce. Surely racism tied into how the company managed its fruit and workers. There is a lot to be researched in this! I’m really interested in diving deeper.

  2. A very well designed learning activity. Great layout and it invites exploration at multiple levels. Many interesting observations to be made. The one I like, is the contrast between the two boats. The simple dugout. Powered by men of color that bring the bananas to local market.

    Now contrast that with the “Great WHITE” fleet – very posh and powered by steam. It provides exotic vacations for moneyed people. Likely white. Of course the whole time United Fruit (with the aid of the US government) was subverting governments in Central America to discourage democracy and support an exploitive export market.

    The rail lines were not designed to provide needed domestic transport of people. Instead, they carried bananas from the interior to the ports for export. Thus connecting those two boats. Nice touch that the Keystone View Company had offices in Portland. Would be fun to find where that was.

    Thanks for providing link to NPR story for background.

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