The 1876 World’s Fair was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was there that Americans were introduced to an exotic new fruit. Before that, most Americans had never heard of bananas, much less eaten one. In one of the first recorded co-promotions, United Fruit persuaded Kellogg to use pictures of sliced bananas on their Corn Flakes boxes. Bananas became so popular that only 20 years later, Theodore Roosevelt, president of New York City’s Board of Police Commissioners, called for heavy fines and up to ten days in jail for persons throwing peels on the sidewalk because so many people were injured by slipping on them. The banana peel slip-and-fall was the invention of “Sliding” Billy Watson. It became a staple of vaudeville, and is still a fixture in physical comedy.
There are hundreds of varieties of bananas
The closer you get to the source, the more varieties are for sale in stores. There are bananas as big as your arm and as small as your finger. There are red, blue and black bananas, bananas with the textures of ice cream and pudding and bananas with the flavors of apples, lemons and honey.
A few banana facts
- The word banana comes to us from banan, the Arabic word for finger.
- India is the world’s largest banana grower and consumer, followed by China.
- Papua New Guinea leads the world in banana consumption with 235 pounds per person, ten times as many as Americans.
- Guinness says a Spaniard grew the world’s largest-ever bunch of bananas. Its 473 bananas weighed 287 pounds.
Most young people know Banana Republic only as a clothing retailer
The term banana republic was coined by American writer O. Henry in 1904 to describe South American countries with corrupt and dictatorial regimes. Banana republics are dependent upon exporting a single product and are politically and economically unstable.
Banana Republics are usually run by armies
Woody Allen spoofed banana republics in his 1971 film, Bananas. Across Central America, a series of corrupt and easily bribable dictators exploited their countries’ natural resources for personal gain. Banana republics are controlled not by their citizens, but by foreign-owned companies. Corruption is widespread, poverty is common and a handful of political and economic elites control everything.
For many years, the United Fruit Company was the largest employer in Central America. In addition to its banana business, it ran national postal services, radio and telegraph companies, railroads and the biggest shipping line in the world. It took complete control over so many South and Central American counties that people called it “El Pulpo,” the octopus.
United Fruit became the symbol of exploitative export economies
In much of Central and South America and the Caribbean, United Fruit controlled everything. United Fruit ran the countries and used the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines to overthrow governments that got in their way by convincing legislators that they were stamping out Communism.
- When revolutionaries overthrew Cuba’s corrupt Fulgencio Batista, one of their key reasons was to get rid of United Fruit and other foreign companies that stole their country’s resources and kept its citizens in poverty. Some of the ships used to support the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion to take power back from Castro were part of United Fruit’s Great White Fleet. United wanted Castro eliminated, a new bribable dictator put into power and a return to business as usual.
- In Guatemala, when democratically elected officials sought to take power from foreign businesses and give it to its citizens, United Fruit convinced the American government that these were the actions of communists. The CIA intervened and kept a series of puppets in power for more than 30 years.
- In Colombia, when banana workers struck for better working conditions, the company paid the army to break the strike by killing hundreds of workers. Gabriel García Márquez wrote about it in his novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
- Similar conditions existed with the pineapple industry in Hawaii when the U.S. Marines were used to overthrow the government and replace it with one favorable to the interests of Dole, not Hawaiians. American and European oil companies have done the same sort of things in the Mideast since World War One, bribing kings and shahs for the rights to their oil.
United Fruit made a banana into a woman in 1944 and called her Chiquita. The inspiration for the spokesfruit was singer, actor and dancer Carmen Miranda. The costumes and tutti-frutti hats Miranda wore in the 1943 film The Gang’s All Here served as guidelines for the Chiquita Banana character. She was first drawn in 1954 by Dik Browne, creator of the Hagar the Horrible and Hi and Lois comic strips. Click here and here to watch two of Chiquita’s early commercials. Note the educational tones of both. In 1970, United changed its name to Chiquita Brands.
Chiquita was changed into a woman in 1987
Early sketches were provided by Oscar Grillo, the same man who drew the Pink Panther.
More songs are written about bananas than any other fruit
Did you know Donovan’s Mellow Yellow referred to the notion of getting high by smoking dried banana peels? The best of all modern banana songs is Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song, known by most as Day-O and featured in this great scene from Beetlejuice. The first one, though, was Yes We Have No Bananas.
That #1 song of 1923 was inspired by Greek street vendors when fungus wiped out the dominant variety of the time, the Gros Michel. Wild bananas have seeds, but domesticated bananas are propagated from the roots of existing plants. They are all clones, all sterile and when a disease takes hold of the origin root, the entire variety is affected. When the Gros Michel variety died out, the Cavendish took its place.
You probably peel bananas by starting at the stem. When you hold the stem in your hand and peel from the other end, you have a built-in handle. Click here to see how to use the monkey method.
You probably needn’t worry about spiders
There are several species of spiders that live in banana stalks and only some of them are poisonous. When bananas are harvested and shipped to market, some of the spiders ride along, hidden in the bunches. Not as many get through as they did in the days before refrigeration.