No matter the time of year, you can visit a grocery store or supermarket in almost any community in the United States and find fresh fruit and vegetables from across the country and around the world. In contrast, during the late 1800s, the diets of most U.S. residents did not contain nearly as many fresh fruits and vegetables as we eat today. Also, most fruit and vegetables were consumed relatively near where they were grown. (However, refrigerated railroad freight cars began to be used in the 1880s to ship meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables across the nation. To learn more about refrigerator railcars, read Part 1 and Part 2 of this FreightWaves Classics article.)
In the United States in the late 1800s, the banana was “considered a rare and delicious treat.” The key challenge for all banana importers was (and is) to get the highly perishable fruit to American markets before it spoiled.
Importing fruit was (is) big business
Based in the Port of Boston, the Boston Fruit Company (1885-1899) was a fruit production and import business. Andrew W. Preston, Captain Lorenzo D. Baker and 10 other investors founded the company with $15,000 to ship bananas and other fruit from the West Indies* to the northeastern U.S. Baker served as the company’s president and manager of its tropical division.
At the time of its founding, the Boston Fruit Company was one of at least 60 other banana importing companies founded late in the 19th century to transport bananas and other tropical fruits from Central America and the West Indies to the United States. The company was incorporated in Massachusetts in 1890. By that time, Boston Fruit had become the most successful banana importing firm in the United States.
The group’s initial investment of $15,000 had earned them more than $500,000 by 1890. There were several key reasons for the company’s success in transporting and marketing one of the world’s most perishable fruits. Because the Boston Fruit Company established extensive banana plantations in Jamaica, the company was assured a steady supply of bananas – as many as 250,000 stems annually by 1892. By its tenth anniversary, the company “own[ed] nearly 40,000 acres, included in 35 plantations, and deep-water frontage [in Jamaica] in the harbors of Port Antonio and Port Morant.”
In Boston, “Long Wharf [was] the headquarters of the tropical fruit trade, and here the Boston Fruit Company, an association of Boston merchants and West India fruit-growers, received their cargoes of bananas, coconuts, oranges, lemons, and kindred fruits.” In 1888, a Boston newspaper reported, “Two new varieties of tropical fruit will be introduced into this market by the middle of May by the Boston Fruit Company; namely, mangoes and the avocado pear.”
As reported in 1890, “The Boston Fruit Company has got [sic] fully into work for the season, and steamers are now running regularly between Jamaica and Boston. As yet the cargoes are principally confined to bananas and coconuts. During April, this company imported 9,077 cases and 44,202 boxes of oranges, and 39,354 boxes of lemons, together with 163,779 bunches of bananas.”
Preston chose the West Indies as the area from which to export fruit (principally bananas) to the United States. What was different about the Boston Fruit Company was that its owners also owned the production end of the business after it bought plantations in Jamaica. “The fact that… Preston owned [the] sources of supply differentiated [him] from others in the business. Until then, it was unheard of for companies to deal at the supply end of the banana trade.”
Extensive land ownings on the northeastern and eastern coast of Jamaica were cultivated by Jamaicans working for the Boston Fruit Company. Under the company’s supervision, the cultivation of Jamaican fruit and its quality improved steadily. Moreover, the company took care of the bananas (and other fruit) from field to ship to final destination. Observers noted that the quality of the fruit “is the best that ever came from there, and they attribute this to the careful handling of the bananas all along the line, as well as their careful cultivation.”
Preston cautioned his buying agents in Jamaica in a letter about “maintaining quality in a competitive marketplace.” He wrote, “[T]he time is past when importers can make a profit on thin and ordinary fruit… and I trust our Jamaica people will keep it in mind at all times.” In a subsequent letter Preston noted that his emphasis on quality was causing tension within the company but he refused to lower his standards. “I presume your people [in Jamaica] think we are disposed to criticize your selections, but we are driven to it by the power of competition – naturally our best customers want the best fruit and I assure you we find it difficult to hold them with fruit of poorer quality than our competitors offer them. It is very plain to my mind that the successful company of the future is the one that controls the growing of its own fruit.”
Shipping agents graded bunches of bananas by the fullness of the individual fruits and the outward appearance of the peels. Fruit with “scars, bruises or other blemishes were also subject to discounting and outright rejection.”
Prior to 1883 the Boston Fruit Company’s fruit was transported from Jamaica to Boston in schooners equipped with sails. That year the company purchased two of the fastest steam-powered cargo ships operating in the Caribbean to replace its ships that depended on wind power. And the Boston Fruit Company owned these steamships, which meant the cargo space was used as needed. The company did not depend on other ships, which might not sail when scheduled, and/or whose crews might not take as much care with the easily bruised or ruined fruit as its own employees would. The company’s ships operated between the Jamaican ports and Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. In addition to carrying fruit from the company’s plantations, the ships carried additional freight for other shippers when the ships had room, and provided “passenger accommodations for many tourists visiting the West-India Islands.”
A new steamer was added to the line in 1886, and that year the three steamers made 26 round-trips. Four steamers were making the trip by the first of March 1887, which was a month earlier than previous years. The company’s steamers delivered 1.15 million bunches of Jamaica bananas that year, compared to only 24,042 bunches prior to adding the steam-powered vessels. From March to November, a Boston Fruit Company steamer from Jamaica docked every 10 days; from November to March the ships docked every two weeks. In order to expand the distribution and sales of its bananas, the owners of Boston Fruit Company formed the Fruit Dispatch Company, which allowed it to ship fresh fruit to inland markets in the U.S.
During Boston’s winters, the company had a heating room (kept at 60°F). It was capable of holding as many as 10,000 bunches of bananas. The best Jamaican bananas were sold from the ship for $1.40 to $1.50 per bunch, while lower quality bunches might fetch as little as $0.40 to $0.80 per bunch.
United Fruit Company
Preston’s business plan of integrating production, shipping and marketing worked well. He believed that the company could “more effectively regulate both the quantity and quality of the fruit reaching U.S. markets and thereby reduce the financial risks associated with trading a highly perishable commodity.”
In 1899, Preston was a central figure in the formation of the United Fruit Company. That year, he entered into an agreement with Minor C. Keith, and merged the Boston Fruit Company into the newly founded United Fruit Company. “In March 1899 the United Fruit Company was formed through the consolidation of the Boston Fruit Company, obtaining fruit from the West Indies, and the companies headed by Minor C. Keith, which secured their bananas from Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.”
Decades later, the United Fruit Company merged with Eli M. Black’s AMK to become United Brands Company in 1970. Then, United Brands became Chiquita Brands International in 1984.
*”The West Indies are a subregion of North America, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The West Indies includes 13 independent island countries and 18 dependencies and other territories in three major archipelagos: the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles, and the Lucayan Archipelago.”