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Spotlight on Historical Collections

United Fruit Images Bring Research Alive

Published: 11/15/2005

The vast array of images from the United Fruit Company in Baker Library's Historical Collections is increasingly attractive to scholars, allowing them to enrich the MBA curriculum and their own research with highly evocative historical resources. HC maintains an archive of seventy-five photograph albums encompassing 10,400 images from 1891 to 1962 that show United Fruit's industrial processes as well as the lives of its workers and managers.

Professor Geoffrey Jones and former Harvard-Newcomen Fellow Marcelo Bucheli, now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have written a case, "The Octopus and the Generals: The United Fruit Company in Guatemala," which Jones has taught to MBA students during the second year elective, Entrepreneurship and Global Capitalism.

Loading Bananas
Loading bananas, Guatemala

According to Jones, "[Our] case was concerned with the efforts of a Guatemalan government in the early 1950s to expropriate some of United Fruit's land in order to distribute to the country's large landless class. The images were effective in bringing the reality of the time and place alive to the class, and thus providing the basis for a more informed class discussion on a topic and region far removed from the experience of most of today's MBAs."

Alexis Lefort, who provided research assistance to Jones, said the images provided gripping multimedia material that kept students interested in the case discussion and visually drove home points such as "the huge difference in living conditions between the workers and the managers, as illustrated by the shots of the employee barracks compared to the managers' estates."

Bucheli, who wrote Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899-2000, originally perused the collection looking for a possible book cover image. "I was amazed by the amount of photographs, their quality, and the wide scope of issues they cover..." he said. "I was particularly interested also in some very political photographs. For the Colombian case, the company had images of the consequences of the riots and strikes it faced in 1928. They have some very [arresting] images of burnt company buildings. These photographs were taken after the strike (which they call a 'revolution') and are some of the very few images of that event that exist."

Manager House
Manager's house, Bananera, Guatelmala, first half of twentieth century

Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960, said the United Fruit collection provided her "unique insight into the company's evolving interests in representing different aspects of their plantation empire."

"It is not coincidental that photographs under the heading of 'welfare,' portraying the housing, religious, and educational infrastructure provided for workers' families, were collected by the company for the first time in the 1920s, precisely when the company faced sustained public allegations of exploitative conditions on their plantations. The images generated in this period, ranging from workers' baseball teams on the company's Cuban sugar plantations, to Afro-Caribbean schoolmasters leading children in calisthenics in Honduran company towns, to South Asian immigrant families on Jamaican banana plantations, are a priceless source of information about the social and cultural history of the early twentieth century Greater Caribbean," said Putnam.

The albums are organized by region and by nation; other categories include crops; spraying and irrigation; facilities; and recreation and miscellaneous. An offline finding aid is available.

Contact: Historical Collections.

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