America’s Journey to Banana Land: Part 1

[Ed. note: I’m trying something a little different today. I wrote this piece for a class last semester, and I’d like to share it with you and get your feedback on it — was it easy to understand, does it keep your interest, et cetera? Okay, let’s get to it.]

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Wal-Mart sells one particular item more than any other, and it’s probably not what you might think. The number-one selling item at the world’s largest retailer isn’t toilet paper or DVDs or socks.

It’s bananas. Wal-Mart sells more bananas than anything else.

Americans eat a whopping 26 pounds of bananas on average per year, more than apples and oranges combined. But unlike apples and oranges, hardly any bananas are grown within the United States. Bananas didn’t arrive here in any appreciable amount until after the Civil War.

How did the banana, this tropical newcomer, become America’s favorite? And will it always be that way?

In 1870, Lorenzo Dow Baker, captain of the fishing schooner Telegraph, was returning home after bringing gold prospectors to Venezuela’s Orinoco river, when the Telegraph began taking on water. After stopping for repairs in Jamaica, Baker saw bananas for sale while in port and decided to take some on as cargo, hoping the sale of the then-exotic fruit would help him recoup the cost of his repairs. Figuring he could easily make the mainland in two weeks at most, Baker could only hope the bananas would still be sellable when he reached home.

At the time, bananas from the subtropical Caribbean had been sporadically available in port cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston for more than 60 years. Ideally, bananas need tropical or subtropical climates—to bear fruit, they require 14 to 23 consecutive months of sunny, frost-free weather, coupled with abundant rain, making nearly all of the United States, with some exceptions around the Gulf of Mexico, is unsuitable for growing bananas. While Spanish settlers brought banana plants to southern Florida, periodic frosts kept the plants from bearing fruit more than once every four or five years. (Florida bananas, when they did grow, were described in a 1913 publication as being “generally inferior in quality, as compared with tropical fruit.”)

Baker knew transporting bananas from the Caribbean to the US was the biggest challenge by far. Any delay in shipping—fierce winds or calm seas—meant bananas arrived at port far too ripe to sell, and earlier banana importers had gone bankrupt after just one or two delayed shipments. Baker set sail from Jamaica when he felt conditions were ideal, and arrived in Jersey City just 11 days later. He sold 160 bunches of bananas for two dollars each (the equivalent of nearly $48 a bunch today) which was more than enough to pay for the repairs to his ship. Encouraged by this initial success, within a year, Lorenzo Dow Baker was the biggest banana exporter in the Caribbean.

The fruit he imported, exotic and expensive, quickly became the height of culinary fashion at upper-class dinner parties —although the banana was never to be picked up and eaten out of hand; the etiquette of the time demanded that, while at the dinner table, the suggestively-shaped banana was strictly to be eaten with a fruit knife and fork, particularly when eaten by women.

As bananas became the fashionable fruit, Andrew Preston, a 25-year-old produce buyer in Boston, found he could hardly keep them in stock. “I saw ’em, I bought ’em and I sold ’em,” he later recalled of first buying some of Baker’s banana cargo. He quickly realized the potential of this new fruit in the United States and in 1885, Preston and Lorenzo Dow Baker founded the world’s first commercial banana company: Boston Fruit. It would later be known as The United Fruit Company, a name that would become synonymous with controlling third-world governments for their own profit—the so-called “banana republics.” Most of us know United Fruit today as Chiquita.

After telling his business partners that he wanted bananas to be “more popular than apples,” Preston employed some radical new means to make them so. First, his company abandoned sailing ships in favor of new steamships—transit time from the Caribbean to eastern ports now took less than five days—but entire boatloads of bananas still sometimes spoiled before it could be sold. Preston then took the next big step: refrigerated shipping, using thousands of blocks of ice to keep bananas from ripening too fast. Building on this idea, cold-storage warehouses were then built throughout the United States, creating a network of shipping facilities, connected by railway hubs, allowing bananas to be sold further and further inland from coastal ports.

A rival banana importer, seeing the intrinsic link between ice and banana shipping, bought up every ice factory along the Gulf Coast. After cutting out the middleman for his ice supply, Joseph Vaccaro, and his company, Standard Fruit, became the second big success in the banana importing business. Now known as Dole Fruit, it is still Chiquita’s biggest competitor for banana sales.

Banana companies like Standard Fruit and United Fruit grew exponentially, snapping up huge swathes of land at unreasonably low prices—first in the Caribbean, then after running out of room there, moving on to Central America. With ever-increasing numbers of banana plantations, the retail price of bananas began to plummet. In Banana: the Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel describes the success of these early bananas distributors as something that “should have been impossible.”

They brought consumers a highly perishable tropical product, intact and ready to eat, thousands of miles from the place where it grew, at a price everyone could afford. They did it by developing a formula banana conglomerates still employ today: Work on a large scale, control transportation and distribution, and aggressively dominate land and labor. The result? The bananas cost half as much as apples, and Americans couldn’t get enough of the new fruit.

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Well? Did it keep your interest the whole time or did you maybe kind of zone out somewhere in the middle? I’ll post part two — how bananas went from being an elite luxury to an everyday staple — sometime next week.

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8 thoughts on “America’s Journey to Banana Land: Part 1

  1. Fascinating and well written! And I’m glad you said there’s a part 2 coming—my one concern otherwise would have been this piece didn’t have an adequate conclusion. But yes, there are plenty of food geeks out there who will, ahem, eat this kind of stuff up.

  2. Amazing! I missed this until I saw Pt 2, but it definitely held my interest through to the end. Agreed that, on its own, it doesn’t quite feel finished – but looking forward to more :-)

    There’s a funny sentence near the end though, looks like an edit didn’t quite make it? (“snapping up huge swathes of land up more and more land at unreasonably low prices”)

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