Food distribution

One banana, two banana, three banana, four…

Answers to questions frequently asked about Bananas, United Fruit Company, ca. 1940. WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Municipal Archives contains one remaining scrapbook documenting food consumption, availability and recipes during the LaGuardia Administration. The volume is a compendium of yellowing clippings from newspapers, one layered on top of the other, covering the period of August 1942 to August 1943. It is titled, “Food News.”

It’s an interesting mish-mash of aging newsprint of various sizes with intriguing headlines and odd reporting. It takes a while to browse through because sometimes the stories on the reverse side of the clippings are equally as interesting as the food reporting. The volume isn’t part of the Works Progress Administration files that are the subject of our Feeding the City exhibit. But so much of the content gathered by the Federal Writers Project staff is echoed in the scrapbook. And the news stories quote some of the same sources used by the WPA writers. Much of the information seems odd.

Take corn, for example. 

Corn brochure, WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The World’s Largest Grain Crop is U.S. Corn touts one headline. 

Old-Style Corn to Spruce Up states another atop a story by Clementine Paddleford detailing how a commercial bakery was producing a new corn bread, richer than the corn pone of the old West.

Food prices throughout the country, and certainly in New York, fluctuated a great deal. A bulletin issued by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1942 attributed several shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables to three factors: high consumer demand, heavy purchasing by the U. S. government and poor crops for some items. Another factor would have been pricing. In part to make food more generally available at affordable prices, the Office of Price Administration established price controls. The bulletin stated, “Among the fresh fruits and vegetables price control was first extended to bananas in May, 1942.” Price controls on citrus, potatoes and onions soon followed in October, 1942. Prunes, it turns out, were not generally available to the public because the crop was earmarked for military consumption.

Recipe booklet, WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The nation really got its first glimpse of the banana at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, which also was the first World’s Fair to be held in the U.S.A. Taking the country by storm the banana was considered a staple by 1910. By 1937, the country imported ten million bananas annually, “a banana and a half each week of the year for every man, woman and child,” according to the Sun. And by 1942, New Yorkers were dismayed first by the cost and then by the dearth of this favored fruit.

The Salem News from Salem, Ohio, reported on the situation, with a dateline from New York City on April 29, 1942. Quoting the 1923 song, “Yes We Have No Bananas” the squib stated that bananas were priced at an ungodly nine cents apiece or five cents for a totally bruised item. Using pidgin English in the text (not replicated below), it quoted a vendor who had specialized in bananas but had begun to sell other fruits as well and who feared he would need to expand to vegetables. “Phooey,” the vendor retorted, blaming the shortage on the war. “They tell me it’s the shipping. The ships go down. Down go the banan(a). But the price, she is up.” (Interestingly, and unrelated to bananas, the paper included a photo of then-Crown Princess Elizabeth, all of 16 years old, signing up for national service and wearing her girl guide uniform.)

The scrapbook documents a food problem during August 1942: the banana shortage.

It starts with the household “Marketing Guide,” published in the Herald Tribune on August 14, 1942. The list did not include bananas among the available fruits for sale in the City. The next day, a headline in the Eagle blared,

Astoria Cops Hunt for Bananas, But Find Only 23 for Ailing Infant

“Virtually every policeman on duty in the Astoria Precinct spent last night in a store-by-store and restaurant-to-restaurant search for bananas for a 21-month old boy suffering from a rare disease, celiac, and today they turned in a total of 23, all they were able to locate.” The officers were attempting to help a Manhattan mother who had been searching for the fruit in vain but heard there might be help in Astoria.

Bronx Terminal Market, Wholesale Stores, 1935. NYC Municipal Archives collection

She was not alone. Another episode concerned a young child in Providence, Rhode Island who also suffered from celiac, which required a banana diet. The call went out. Markets were scoured. And Brooklyn came to the rescue. Sixteen bananas were located at a fruit stand and were sent by air express from LaGuardia to Providence. The New York Times cautioned, “Assurance that persons needing bananas for medicinal purposes only may obtain them without the necessity of scouring the city came last night from the American Banana Corporation at Pier 2, Bronx Terminal Market, the largest banana jobbers in this area. A spokesman for the concern said a small supply of the fruit always was kept on hand for medicinal uses and could be obtained easily if the demand was legitimate.”

The New York Sun got to the bottom of the issue in its August 18, 1942 edition:

Map of banana trade routes, ca. 1940. WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Bananas Spoil and Die on Stem

War Has Laid Its Deadly Hand on Importation

The problem, they reported, was that ships that formerly carried bananas were carrying war materials. As the number one fruit imported into the United States, the banana was not only tasty but also “an important force for good neighborliness in the Americas.” One must wonder if this slant was influenced by the two major companies that grew and imported bananas—United Fruit and Standard Fruit (now Dole). As the titans in so-called banana republics, the notion of their monopolies leading to hemispheric friendship was part of a public relations campaign. The same story, word-for- word, was also published in the Independent Grocer on August 21st.

One can only imagine the joyous shouts from readers of an August 25, 1942 report in the New York Times. For the first time in several weeks, two shipments of bananas were scheduled to arrive in New York.

 Bananas Reaching South Brought Here By Truck

August 25, 1942 report in the New York Times. Mayor LaGuardia collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

264 Washington Street, ca. 1940. Sal Traina’s wholesale shop received an emergency shipment of 24,000 lbs of bananas in 1942. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In another clipping, a New York Tribune food column extolled a new development: the availability of dehydrated bananas.

Answers to questions frequently asked about Bananas, United Fruit Company, ca. 1940. WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

“Consider the banana. No longer do numberless hands of the brown flecked yellow banana decorate the shopfronts. Once in a while we see them and we feel warm toward them like friends returned…. The packages of dried bananas, now sold in one-pound sizes, contain between fifteen and eighteen whole bananas; the cost is about one-half the price of the fresh fruit. They taste like bananas, but concentrated in flavor and fig-like in texture. They can be simmered in water and served with cream. They can be cut up and served in salad or eaten plain. A luxury at the moment. They will have wide distribution soon.”

By September, bananas were not so newsworthy. The last clip on the topic for the month, a “special cable” to the New York Times on August 28, reports on the end of banana contracts.

United Fruit Acts in Costa Rica Because of War Conditions

The company cancelled all contracts with growers in Costa Rica because of shipping issues.

There were no bananas that day.

The Food Problem: 1918

In government, what is done when a problem is identified? A Committee is formed. This is not a new thought. One of the items recently unearthed in the Municipal Library is a pamphlet entitled “Report of The Food Problem Committee.” This sparked immediate questions: what was the food problem to be resolved? Who was on the Committee? What solutions were offered? How did it work out?