Have you ever worn a banana sticker on your forehead? I remember half-heartedly trying this out as a kid before filing the idea alongside other vaguely old-fashioned childhood pastimes—like hopscotch or lifting the funnies from newspaper with Silly Putty—that never seemed quite fun enough to justify the broad, twinkly-eyed smiles of the grownups who quietly encouraged them. Looking back, I’ve come to understand that, like many of the mysterious enthusiasms of nostalgic Baby Boomer parents, the craze for banana stickers (and their attendant rituals) has roots in the great mid-century golden age of advertising.
In the start of one of the most aggressive branding efforts in American history, in 1944 the United Fruit Company hired Dik Browne (later the creator of the Hagar the Horrible comics) to draw what would become Miss Chiquita, the Carmen Miranda-inspired singing banana cartoon. UFC was at this point a well-established behemoth. Formed by a merger in 1899, it had by 1905 already helped transform the banana from an exotic luxury item into the cheapest and most commonly eaten fruit in the United States. But Miss Chiquita and her maddeningly catchy jingle (conceived of by what was no doubt a Mad Men-esque ad agency team) harnessed the power of pop culture to make the ubiquitous product sexy again.
The Chiquita Banana song, despite (or because of?) goofy lyrics like “Bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator / So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator” became an actual hit recorded by popular musicians, and was once played on the radio 376 times in a single day, according to Virginia Scott Jenkins’ Bananas: An American History. American enlisted men even voted Miss Chiquita “the girl we’d most like to share a foxhole with.” UFC shipped copies of the song’s sheet music to elementary and high schools, and between 1955 and 1962 published 15 million pieces of “literature” designed to ensure that the next generation of super-consumers were sufficiently bananas for bananas.
UFC first introduced the blue Chiquita stickers in 1963, accompanied by a flood of advertising training shoppers to spot the new visual signal. “Look for the seal on the peel and wear it in good health,” read an early magazine ad featuring a gap-toothed, red-headed little girl holding a banana and sporting the sticker (aha!) smack in the middle of her forehead.
As Jenkins writes, this all “changed the business from that of selling a commodity to that of selling a branded, identifiable product,” and the strategy paid off. Almost immediately, the branded bananas, thought to be of higher quality, were able to fetch higher prices than unbranded ones. Ever since, the company (known since 1984 as Chiquita Brands International) has used the labels to encourage greater consumption (“Take one in the morning,” “Brain fuel,” “Potassium rich!”), sometimes in partnership with other breakfast food giants (“Slice on Cheerios”), and for self-referential commemorations such as Miss Chiquita’s 50th “birthday” in 1994, which kicked off a national competition to find a new actress to travel the country with a bowl of fruit on her head.
The 2000s even brought a revival of the old forehead shtick with a label that commanded: “Place Sticker on Forehead. Smile.” Today, Chiquita has sections of its website devoted to Miss Chiquita and the stickers, boasting that it was the “first company to brand a banana.”
The only problem with that story is that it isn’t strictly true. A Dublin-based company called Fyffes has been deploying branded banana stickers since 1929, Ann Lovell, curator of the Washington Banana Museum in Auburn, Washington, told me. Its early ad copy—“Fyffes blue label food of health,” “Look for the blue label,” “The sign of the best bananas”—is awfully similar to Chiquita’s from the 1960s. (Plus: blue!) Even within the US, UFC may actually have been late to the fruit-branding game, John Soluri suggests in Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States. The California Fruit Growers’ Exchange was wrapping oranges in Sunkist-stamped tissue paper as early as 1908, and Sun-Maid raisins hit grocery store shelves in 1912.
But whoever was first, many others followed, with other banana brands—such as Dole, Del Monte, Turbana, and hundreds more—competing for recognition with their own stickers. That rainbow array has enticed many a collector, from those who’ve casually affixed a handful of eye-catching labels to a notebook or pantry door to devoted hobbyists eager to show off rare finds.
Becky Martz is a proud member of the latter group. Tickled by the Chiquita holiday slogan “The perfect stocking stuffer,” she saved her first label in 1991, and today has amassed about 17,500 stickers from something like 1,000 brands. “At first I thought I must be the only person in the universe doing this,” Martz told me with a self-deprecating laugh. “Then we got the Internet.”
Since then she’s become part of a global online community of collectors, hosting a weekly chat on her website, dragging vacationing family members through the produce aisles of far-flung grocery stores, and traveling to dedicated conferences in Munich, Vienna, Los Angeles, and Costa Rica.
Building a great collection is all about trades, Martz explained, partly because stickers that are common in some parts of the world are rare in others. When the collectors get word, often from a Chiquita or Dole employee, that a new set of labels is coming out, they set about obtaining one of each new sticker from all the different countries where the company has farms. (Chiquita started printing countries of origin on their labels in the 1990s.) In grocery stores in Orlando, where Martz lives, bananas from Honduras and Guatemala are the norm, so she stockpiles those to trade with a friend in California for has easier access to Ecuador stickers.
But that’s the everyday stuff. When I asked Martz about coveted rarities, she pointed to the “Meloripe,” a pre-Chiquita UFC experiment dating back to the 1930s and thought to be the oldest American sticker. (Martz hasn’t scored one yet, but does have an early Fyffes label.) Then there’s the 1980 Olympics: Chiquita’s special edition stickers touting its sponsorship of the Lake Placid Winter Games are fun, but it’s a second set featuring Misha the Bear—printed but never sold, because of the U.S. boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow that year—that collectors consider the ultimate prize.
But of course, everybody has a slightly different perspective. While some collectors are scrupulous about tracking down dates and historical information for all their labels, Martz, who catalogues hers alphabetically by brand, prefers to think of each as a tiny work of art.
“I collect all labels,” Martz told me, “but the cute ones are my special touch.” Among her favorites are a pair of rare 1960s Jacko brand labels—gifts from a friend in Sweden—sporting pictures of a little boy’s face, his hair made of tiny bananas.
One Belgian sticker in Martz’s collection has Miss Chiquita on it but definitely wasn’t printed by UFC or Chiquita brands: Its text translates to “Chiquita violates human rights,” a reference to the ruthless tactics of an infamous company, once known in growing countries as “the octopus,” that won 90 percent of the banana market by seizing control of shipping and railroads, overthrowing Central American governments, and massacring farm workers when they went on strike.
For the most part, though, collectors are more interested in contemplating aesthetics than the grim politics of banana republics. And for some, Chiquita’s outsize success in the branding wars—who hasn’t plucked a blue sticker from a banana and put it on their forehead?—has actually decreased the perceived value of the familiar icon.
“They’re certainly the biggest brand,” Martz said delicately, “but some collectors think they’re boring.”