How Did Tropical Fruits Become Commonplace in the USA?

Innovations of the late 1800s revolutionized American commerce and trade. Industrialists provided consumers access to tropical fruits while exploiting the labor of Caribbean populations.

Jan 29, 2024By Aaron Stoyack, BA History, Museum Studies Minor

how tropical fruits became commonplace usa


A banana tree at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia caused a stir; as Frederick Upham Adams recalled, “…it was surrounded by a group of spectators, many of whom would have been delighted to have plucked a banana…this was the most romantic of all the innumerable things I had seen in any of the vast buildings. It was the tangible, living, and expressive symbol of the far-distant and mysterious tropics.”


Bananas are currently the most consumed fruit in the country. Yet before 1870, only 0.0001 percent of the population had seen one. How, then, did bananas and other tropical fruits become so ubiquitous today?


Presence in American Diet & History

westcott horticultural hall philadelphia centennial exposition 1876
Horticultural Hall by Thompson Westcott, 1876. Source: Free Library of Philadelphia


The modern American diet is marked by overconsumption of calories and high-processed food. These factors are linked to increased mortality rates and multiple adverse health outcomes. One may assume that members of the early industrial society ate a more balanced diet. Yet, in some surprising ways, the nutritional variety has increased over the years.


Estimates have Americans in 2000 eating 129 pounds of fresh fruit annually per person, compared to 80 pounds in 1800. Nineteenth-century inhabitants relied on meat, dairy, and grains as these were the most available means to fill their stomachs. Yet in 1900, residents ate 219 pounds yearly, which decreased 53 percent over the next 50 years. What are the reasons for this sudden rise and fall?

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From the colonial period until the late 1800s, fruits and vegetables were consumed almost solely from local sources. Crops not native to the United States, namely tropical fruits such as bananas, were rare treats and pricey status symbols.


greatbatch pineapple pitcher cream jug williamsburg photo
Cream Jug by William Greatbatch, ca. 1758. Source: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


Under sail, tropical fruits were an afterthought in shipments to Atlantic ports. Great care and speed needed to be undertaken in their transport. Pineapples were grown as a novelty among America’s wealthy colonial planter class and symbolized hospitality, but they were not a prominent food source. Like bananas and other Caribbean staples, they were challenging to cultivate stateside due to climactic differences.


Limited cargoes of bananas from Cuba and the Bahamas, aboard “pineapple schooners,” arrived in New York City beginning in 1804. After the Civil War, shipping restrictions were removed, and merchants purchased citrus fruits, bananas, and coconuts directly from Jamaican farmers.


Preservation of Tropical Fruits Over Long Distances

refrigerator railroad car fruit growers express photo
Refrigerated Railroad Car Owned and Operated by Fruit Growers Express, built in March 1924. Source: Collections of The Henry Ford, Dearborn


Steam ignited the First Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered vessels existed in the late 1800s, yet sailing remained the dominant form of water transportation. Sailboats ferried as much as two-thirds of Jamaican fruit exports in 1878. Within four years, the trend reversed, with steamers holding two-thirds of the trade.


The advent of steamships in the 1880s contributed to a drastic increase in imports of tropical fruits. These quicker boats guaranteed a steady supply with less concern over goods spoiling.


Refrigerated railroad cars transported produce great distances overland. Chilled meat cars existed by 1875, but Samuel Rumph designed the first made specifically for fruit that year. Rumph, a Georgia peach grower, utilized his invention to bring his products to far-off markets. Businessmen of the early tropical fruit trade soon adopted this technique.


Despite the name “refrigerator cars,” no mechanical cooling occurred except the axles spinning fans inside the container. Forty-five-to-fifty-five-pound blocks of ice kept temperatures low but could melt within an hour. Stations to replenish ice were placed along the track, with ice harvesting and storage facilities supporting the operation.


Fruit companies often owned and staffed rail lines, with trained workers carefully handling the delicate products. In the summer, laborers iced down the cars often. During winter, they packed cars with straw to maintain the temperature.


Canned Foods, From Soldiers to Shelves

underwood deviled ham can logo photo
Deviled Ham from the William Underwood Company, founded in 1822. Source: John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site, Brookline


Innovation also occurred in the preservation process. The first canning techniques were discovered in 1810 when Frenchman Nicolas Appert and Englishman Peter Durand developed separate methods. Using glass and tin, respectively, as containers, their systems prolonged the shelf life of foods.


Kensett and Co., based in New York City, marketed their canned goods to naval and trade vessel captains in the 1820s. Business grew modestly for the first decades until increasing westward expansion, the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, and the Civil War made the need to preserve fresh foods over long distances apparent.


Cans also provided a medium for advertisements. Transportation expanded the grower’s products into new markets, generating a desire for brand recognition. Logos and promotional media were displayed on the product’s surface. The devil on the cans shown above first appeared in 1870 and is the oldest continuing American food trademark.


Great White Fleet- United Fruit Company, by United Fruit Company, 1896-1890. Source: Thomas Crane Public Library, Quincy


The can opener was introduced in 1860 by Ezra J. Warner. Previously, cans were opened with a hammer and chisel. This process was merely an inconvenience for frontiersmen and soldiers but a real challenge for home consumers.


Kensett began canning pineapples in 1865 that were imported into Baltimore from the West Indies. Kensett’s operation contributed to creating the fruit-packing industry alongside the existing oyster-packing business in Baltimore. An 1895 discovery found that dispensing pressurized steam into the cans killed bacteria, lengthening shelf life even more.


Combination of Companies to a Conglomerate

United fruit company cruise steamer boston jamaica photo
Advertisement for United Fruit Company’s Great White Fleet by United Fruit Company, 1920. Source: Boston College Department of History


Boston Harbor became the leading site for importing tropical fruit in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Coconuts, oranges, mangoes, lemons, avocados, and several other fruits were introduced to Boston wharves in the 1880s.


Captain Lorenzo Dow Baker made a considerable profit on a banana shipment in 1870, which prompted him to unite with businessman Andrew Preston to form the Boston Fruit Company in 1885. This became the largest of over sixty similar fruit companies importing tropical products from Central America and the Caribbean.


The Boston Fruit Company expanded, establishing and acquiring plantations in Jamaica. Two of the fastest Atlantic steamships were also purchased outright. This allowed the company to control its transport’s cargo, schedules, and crew. Eventually, Boston Fruit owned the most extensive private fleet in the world, christened the Great White Fleet. In 1899, Boston Fruit was consolidated with other companies into the United Fruit Company. This conglomerate eventually boasted a vast fleet of refrigerated steamships and operated a near-monopoly on the tropical fruit business.


tela hospital united fruit company honduras 1923 photo
Interior of Tela hospital wards and corridors by United Fruit Company, 1923. Source: Harvard Business School, Cambridge


United Fruit exercised control of the entire supply chain. Housing and medical facilities were constructed for their workforce. They developed mechanically refrigerated ships in 1904, which worked similarly to modern refrigerators. The cargo space used carbon dioxide gas as a cooling agent. The gas was condensed and turned to liquid, then back to gas to repeat the process. Refrigeration allowed bananas and other Caribbean fruits to be exported as far as Europe before spoiling. Shortly after, the company established the Tropical Radio and Telegraph Company to maintain communication between its properties.


Aggressive and misleading advertising by United Fruit began in 1917. Scientists were paid to write positively about the banana, massively increasing their sales. The company also offered cruises aboard ships from their fleet, marketing the tropics as secluded lands of paradise and adventure. Trips featured romanticized tours of the countries and plantations they controlled, carefully coordinated to mask the realities of plantation labor.


Oppression and Resistance in “Banana Republics”

duperly jamaica banana plantation photo
Banana Plantation, by Adolphe Duperly, 1900-1909. Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections


Authoritarian states in Central America, such as Guatemala and Costa Rica, struck deals with corporations for infrastructure and other services. Underpaid and overworked laborers in these nations were severely exploited to feed American families. Jamaica also suffered from labor and land exploitation as corporations bought all available farmland.


Foreign traders owned an overwhelming number of plantations and abused their workforce. Indigenous populations, Afro-Jamaican workers, and indentured servants from South Asia were subjugated. Jamaica was under British control, and its colonial government prioritized exports over the well-being of its inhabitants. Countries such as these were called “banana republics” due to their reliance on a single export, a term considered offensive today.


coco river patrol marines nicaragua intervention 1929 photo
Coco River Patrol, Nicaragua, 1929. Source: USMC Archives


From 1898 until 1934, the United States staged a series of military interventions in banana republics. These were called the “banana wars,” characterized by American servicemen acting to protect the interests of the fruit trade. Sometimes, the companies themselves orchestrated action. In 1911, the Cuyamel Fruit Company supported a Honduran coup that ousted their president in favor of their chosen candidate.


In October 1928, Colombian workers organized a strike for better labor conditions that lasted two months. The Colombian Armed Forces opened fire on the protestors at the behest of United Fruit on December 5th. Over one thousand laborers were murdered in the ensuing bloodshed.


The CIA covertly supported a 1954 coup that overthrew the democratically elected Guatemalan president to protect the United Fruit Company. For three decades thereafter, Guatemala was ravaged by civil war and commanded by US-backed dictators. These thirty years of bloodshed claimed the lives of 200,000 civilians.


Legacies of the colonial system continue in many of the affected countries. Small farmers in Jamaica hold scarcely more land or share in exports than they did in the early 1900s. Sixty-five percent of Guatemalan farmland is owned by only two percent of Guatemala’s farming companies. Practices from this era hinder the well-being of the nations and the prospects of their citizens today.


Tropical Fruits: Fading Trend, But Still a Mainstay

wpa nutrition poster war services food groups print
Eat These Every Day, by Work Projects Administration, 1941-1943. Source: Library of Congress


As fruit consumption increased, demand for other staples did as well. The same innovations that benefitted tropical fruit importers, particularly refrigerated railcars, also aided the meat industry. Meat, particularly beef, remained at the center of American diets, along with potatoes. Fruits cultivated stateside, such as apples, cherries, and berries, always retained their place at the table.


Nutrition science began in Boston in the early 1900s, just as fruit companies had decades prior. Early nutritionists concerned themselves only with protein, carbohydrates, fats, and water, neglecting the value of fruits in a diet. The Great Depression, coupled with a 1930 tariff, reduced agricultural imports. Labor movements in Latin America frightened shareholders in colonial corporations. In response, the United Fruit Company sold most of its properties in the 1960s. In subsequent decades, processed foods became a significantly larger share of American cuisine.


The marked increase in fruit consumption among the American public was due to the mass industrialization of transportation and trade. Technological optimizations increased the quality of life for countless consumers. Individuals eagerly consumed food once heralded as a distant, rare delicacy. This came at the expense of multinational corporations, sometimes working with the Federal government, exploiting foreign nations. This legacy shapes the global society today and deserves thorough examination, so mistakes are not repeated.

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By Aaron StoyackBA History, Museum Studies MinorAaron is a historian, museum specialist, and writer. He graduated Summa Cum Laude from West Chester University with a BA in History. Aaron served on local commissions and presented at regional and national public history and education conferences. He enjoys researching and interpreting all aspects of history, from local to global scale.