By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
|The mysterious banana photo, c. 1900|
For years I have been trying to figure out the historical explanation for this unusual banana photograph in our collection (and by “trying” I mean periodically thinking that I should look into it and then forgetting). I simply couldn’t understand why a single Elmira fruit dealer around the turn of the 20th century would have that many bananas in stock. I mean, how could they possibly sell them all before they spoiled? Was there really that big of a market for bananas here? Well, I think I’ve finally cracked the code.
|A fruit dealer with a far more sensible amount of banana merchandise, c. 1895.|
Bananas were available in the US after the Civil War, but they were at first expensive and a luxury. They cost a dime each, about $2 today. They were sold peeled and cut so that their shape would not offend prudish Victorians. By the 1870s, large-scale banana importation began, with American ships sailing to the Caribbean and South America for product. As refrigerated shipping increased the quantities of bananas on the market, prices dropped and they became a normal part of many American’s diets. They were billed as a nutritional powerhouse, particularly for poor families.
|This 1894 Elmira price listing shows that banana prices were decreasing, but still weren't the cheapest food.|
In the 1890s, smaller importers merged to create United Fruit Company, which dominated the market, squashing competition and putting pressure on small fruit retailers. The new banana trust was importing around 12 million bunches of bananas a year by 1900 and their monopoly allowed them to bully small businesses.
In Elmira, fruit dealers felt the pressure. They were charged exorbitant fees for the product and were forced to purchase more bananas than they wanted or could sell. Local merchants were forced to sign a contract to receive 300 bunches every week for the entire year. One anonymous fruit dealer said, “There is absolutely no redress for the merchant. And you must take the kind they ship you. Some of the bunches have to be thrown away because of decay.” This pressure forced some local dealers out of the banana game and ultimately led to a scarcity of bananas in the city by 1903.
|Headline from the Elmira Star-Gazette, April 20, 1903.|
The P. Laskaris and Brothers “Greek Fruit Dealers” shop in the photograph likely signed one of these unfair banana trust deals. They opened this shop in 1889 and sold fruit, candy, ice cream, and soda. And bananas. Lots and lots of bananas.