Bananas Anyone?

Premiering July 15 on anchor.fm/letters-read, a podcast reading from the handmade, 1906 photo-album produced contemporaneously with the last documented yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans and the United States, Quarantine Tour of Central America and Panama by Health Authorities as guests of The United Fruit Company.

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 were safe and did not promote the spread of yellow fever.
What was the real purpose for this curious piece of ephemera compiled and produced in New Orleans? Documentation of United Fruit’s best practices in sanitation and mosquito abatement? Merely propaganda? Follow along online in the digitized album HERE.

The album is large, 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 composit of some sort. “With C. H. Ellis Through Central America and Panama 1906. The Picayune.” is gold-foil-stamped on it in a calligraphic lettering style reminiscent of Looney Tunes Cartoons or Bugs Bunny titles. The spine is leather in matching burgundy red.

The title page is printed in officious, rather Robinhood-ish medevil gothic-ish letterpress type on red with a gold decorative element providing the “Q” a versal-letter gravitas.

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 steamshovels, 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 practiced, not a single practice was photographed.

The podcast is 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.