The Story of the United Fruit Company

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In the mid-19th century, public demand for tropical fruits led railroad industrialists such as Henry Meiggs and Minor C. Keith to enter the fruit business. This early business laid the foundation for one of the most powerful companies of the twentieth century.


With the railroads under his belt, Minor C. Keith controlled a powerful economic base. Under the banner of the Boston Fruit Company, he acquired land and shipped millions of bananas to the United States.


The banana business is in full bloom. Other companies join the fray, such as a poor Russian immigrant named Samuel Zemurray. Minor C. Keith agrees to combine with Andrew Preston’s company to form the United Fruit Company, dwarfing their smaller rivals.


The freshly formed United Fruit Company sits at the peak of its influence-, expanding operations into numerous countries, and developing cutting-edge technology–in shipping, genetic modification, and public relations.


The United Fruit Company has become a Latin American hegemon, described by its detractors as “el pulpo.” Plague ravages the gros michel banana, destroying entire fields of crops. Nevertheless, the company enjoys tremendous economic and political power, further pushing to develop technology in communications and shipping.


The hard work of marketing pays off–the banana becomes one of the most popular fruits in America, thanks to recipe books and health-oriented advertising campaigns. Meanwhile, the company struggles to contain labor unrest on their plantations.


Just as the term “banana republic” starts taking off, the United Fruit Company is hit by the Great Depression, the death of Minor C. Keith, and a large strike in Costa Rica. In a hasty deal to save the company, Samuel Zemurray steps in, merging his own company with United Fruit to become its largest shareholder, paving the way to take control as managing director.


With no significant competitors, the United Fruit Company enjoys its golden age–powering through crises such as sigatoka disease, more strikes, and rising anti-monopoly sentiment in the United States.


Sigatoka blight continues, spreading to new regions and wiping out entire plantations. The war, now in full swing, hinders United Fruit’s shipping abilities and exports. New leaders in Central America begin establishing labor rules and land reform. To escape a crash, United Fruit leadership realizes the company must adapt in the coming years.


Reeling from the Second World War, the United Fruit Company seeks to regain its influence. This proves challenging, as democratic revolutions and banana blight continue to sweep Latin America.


As the United Fruit Company achieves its highest level of exports, the political situation abroad and at home has become less favorable than ever. They have adapted to the new world, overhauling their image and business strategy to ensure survival for at least a while.


Though it has held strong through decades of economic and political tumult, the trials of past decades have left the United Fruit Company in a weakened state. Wall Street begins to lose interest, domestic criticism intensifies, and the company’s outlook for the future plunges.