07/15/21 Letters Read: Bananas Anyone?

United Fruit Photo-Album

Available on Spotify for Podcasters, a recorded reading from a handmade, 1906 photo album, Quarantine Tour of Central America and Panama by Health Authorities as guests of The United Fruit Company. Produced in response to the last documented yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans and the United States.

In photographs and text, this interesting relic presents the idea that bananas imported by the largest importer of them in the world at that time, United Fruit, were safe and did not promote the spread of yellow fever.

What was the real purpose of this curious piece of ephemera compiled and produced in New Orleans? Documentation of the company’s best practices in sanitation and mosquito abatement? Merely propaganda? Follow along online in the digitized album HERE.

The album itself is large and slightly crumbling. After the covers and end pieces, it contains 83 individual pages. 69 are photographs, 14 are text, letterpress printed. The cover boards are faux leather, a composite of some sort, and the title is gold-foil-stamped in a calligraphic lettering style reminiscent of Looney Tunes or Bugs Bunny cartoon titles. The spine is leather in matching burgundy red.

All of the photographs are black and white, mounted by hand, with a black paper border on alpha-cellulose paper. Primarily, the album depicts white men in suits, slightly disheveled from travel, wearing hats, some of the Panama fashion.

Through the album’s lens, we see orderly ports and company towns, infrastructure like steam shovels, roads and railways being constructed; agriculture, maritime, and river industries; hospitals, and quarantine stations. New, Colonial-style buildings and, with the exception of members of a few brass bands, a couple of inhabitants of a “Native Hut”—or three, “Hospital Nurses”, “Natives Marketing Bananas”, and soldiers representing the “Honduras Army Stationed at Cortez”, there are very very few locals represented. The only people photographed, pretty much, are the white guys in rumpled suits. Where were all the workers? What were their working conditions? Other than brief textual descriptions of United Fruit’s best practices, not a single practice was photographed.

The podcast is the fourteenth in the ongoing, Letters Read project. Readers are William Bowling and Grace Kennedy with audio production by Steve Chyzyk and Sonic Canvas Studio. Antenna is the project’s fiscal partner, and, 2021 is the fifth consecutive season.

Photo Credit: The Historic New Orleans Collection accession number 1996.14.1-69.
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