This is a special post, excerpted and modified from my book, designed for kids, visiting from The Mini Page, a syndicated feature published in over 500 newspapers every week.
Lorenzo Dow Baker: Banana Pioneer
Bananas were available in the United States immediately following the Civil War. But they were a luxury item, like caviar, consumed more for status than taste. (Plantains, for cooking, had been a staple in the southern parts of the hemisphere since Spanish times.) Most Americans had never seen, sampled, or even heard of the fruit. What few bananas North Americans ate were sold at a dime apiece—about two dollars today—and came peeled, sliced, and wrapped in foil. They were usually mushy and brown by the time they got to the table.
The closest place to the U.S. bananas could be grown, at the time, was Jamaica. The trip from that Caribbean island to the ports of the American northeast could take as long as three weeks aboard the sail-driven schooners of the day. That wasn’t fast enough to keep bananas fresh. But if the winds were just right, a ship could sail faster. Then, a cargo hold full of bananas could fetch a fine price.
In 1870, a Cape Cod sea captain named Lorenzo Dow Baker brought 160 bunches of bananas from Jamaica to the docks at Jersey City, New Jersey. That voyage launched the banana industry in the United States.
Baker’s banana career happened almost by chance, as a byproduct of one of the era’s most daring seafaring adventures. After setting out from Cape Cod, he sailed his ship—the Telegraph—across the Caribbean, to the mouth of Venezuela’s Orinoco River. His passengers were ten gold miners, all anxious to search for riches in excavations they’d heard about 300 miles upstream. The journey upriver- through mosquito-infested jungle, deep into unknown territory – took three months. Baker dropped off the prospectors, collected his pay—$8,500 in gold, or about $125,000 today—and turned toward home.
The trip had almost wrecked the Telegraph, and the old sea captain was forced to stop at Jamaica for repairs. Once they were completed, he prepared to head north to the States. Just before he did, he spotted some bananas on the dock, and decided, at the last minute, to buy them and bring them along. Baker believed he could make it back to the mainland in two weeks. He’d keep the bananas on deck, in order to expose them to cool air, and if the wind and weather were right, he could make back some of the money he’d spent refurbishing his beaten-up ship. The plan worked. Baker got home in eleven days, arriving with bananas fresh enough to wholesale at two dollars a bunch. His profit on the shipment was the equivalent of $6,400 today.
Within a year, Baker was the biggest banana exporter in the Caribbean, becoming so enthusiastic about the new business that he bought land at Port Antonio, Jamaica, where he planted acres of fruit and built a sprawling estate. Baker’s business expanded, and soon, other American entrepreneurs arrived, along with young men recruited – salaries were high - to run the plantations. These first American banana executives built their own elaborate homes, hired servants, and became famous for lighting their cigars with five dollar bills. For native Jamaicans, banana picking was brutal, dangerous work. They were paid for their labor, but the money didn’t last: even if they didn’t choose to spend their money in the town’s bars, saloons, and gambling halls, they’d still have to pay high, fixed prices for their basic needs. In the end, where their wages actually went didn’t matter: Port Antonio’s enterprises – licit and illicit – were banana-company owned.
Another beneficiary of Baker’s business was Andrew Preston, a 25-year old New England produce buyer who couldn’t keep enough of the tropical fruit in stock. For over a decade, Preston had worked at a Boston grocery wholesaler, slowly advancing from janitor to bookkeeper to in-the-field representative. His job was to meet ships at the docks and bargain for whatever fruits and vegetables they were unloading. When he first set eyes the Jamaican bananas, he knew he was looking at something important: “I saw ‘em, I bought ‘em, and I sold ‘em,” he later said.
Baker and Preston became partners in 1885. The two men couldn’t have been more different. Baker was a weathered, broad-chested, rough-hewn seafarer, with a bushy black beard framed by wild sideburns. Preston wanted to accepted by wealthy society; though he wasn’t well-educated, he acted as if he were. While he lacked Baker’s ruggedness and experience with conditions in the wild, he made up for it with a belief in bananas so strong that he was able to attract investors willing to risk their own money in an enterprise whose purpose was to sell a product Americans still knew almost nothing about. The Bostonian raised $16,000 from eight backers, forming the world’s first commercial banana company. “Boston Fruit” was the inaugural name – one of four - the business would adopt. Today, it is known as Chiquita.
The partners were very ambitious. Andrew Preston didn’t just want every American to pick up a few bananas now and then. He wanted the fruit, he told his fellow entrepreneurs, to be “more popular than apples.” But apples could be delivered to grocers within a day or two of harvest. Even after the banana industry abandoned sailing ships for steam-powered vessels—cutting the journey from the Caribbean to less than five days—the trip north was risky. Entire loads sometimes arrived overripe and rotting. The answer was chilled air. Cold keeps bananas green, allowing them to travel further distances. Baker had already set up a system of cold-storage rooms throughout the United States, connected to a network of shipping facilities and railroad hubs. The warehouses weren’t refrigerated – that technology was still decades away. Instead, they used plain old ice, which was literally brought south in huge chunks every winter, floated on rivers and stored in massive, insulated warehouses (ice, in the days before refrigeration, was one of the most profitable businesses in the industrialized world.)
But Preston’s banana network, formidable as it was, was useless if the fruit arrived already spoiled. The boats, he realized, needed to be cooled, as well.
This was something nobody had attempted. It wasn’t just the task of building insulated ships, or figuring out how to invent cargo holds that would accommodate the ice and circulate the air properly. These ships had to do all that, and do it for voyages to the hottest places in the hemisphere.
The ships Preston built were technological marvels. The holds for the ice were segregated from the holds for the bananas, so that once the ice was put in them, they could be sealed off. No hot air could enter them. Instead, the cold air was channeled through the ship through an elaborate venting system. The ships were remarkably energy efficient, as well. They were painted pure white, so that they’d absorb as little heat as possible; they were shaped for speed, so that time in transit would be cut to a minimum. Preston’s engineers even invented radio systems that would allow ship operators to communicate with plantation managers on shore, so that harvested bunches could be ready and waiting as soon as the banana boats arrived at port. Every second counted.
There was another innovation, as well: the system wasn’t just good at cooling bananas. It also worked to keep people comfortable. The company’s banana armada, which soon became known as “The Great White Fleet,” was designed to be convertible. On trips south, the vessels operated as luxury cruise liners. The ventilation ducts that channelled air toward the fruit would be reconfigured to move it into passenger cabins. All of this innovation went toward a single goal: squeeze every penny possible from every possible place, so that bananas could remain cheap. That was the key to Preston’s strategy.
What Preston and Baker accomplished with their bananas should have been impossible. Think about how quickly bananas turn brown or bruise. They overcame that difficulty to bring consumers a fragile,tropical product intact and ready to eat, thousands of miles from the place it grew, at a price everyone could afford! They did it by developing a formula the banana conglomerates still employ today: work on a large scale, control transportation and distribution, and aggressively dominate land and labor. Keep costs low in every possible way. They did it in ways that were often brilliant, but also in ways that were not always fair, or decent, or moral. Over the next century, much blood would be spilled in the name of cheap bananas. But the result was that the banana cost half as much as apples, and Americans couldn’t get enough of the new fruit.
The world’s favorite fruit finally became our favorite, as well.