Sepia Saturday – The Banana House

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. Historical photographs of any age or kind become the launchpad for explorations of family history, local history and social history in fact or fiction, poetry or prose, words or further images.

Today’s prompt is a photograph of the Dughi family store in Raleigh, North Carolina, taken about 100 years ago. Although I was not familiar with the surname Dughi, a quick visit to ancestry.com informed me that the vast majority of immigrants with the surname came to the U.S. from Italy.

As I have come to learn from marrying into a family that immigrated from Italy, produce merchants and grocers were common occupations among Italian immigrants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most people in Texas associate the surname Morales with Mexico – or other Spanish speaking countries. My husband’s family, however, came to the U. S. from Sicily and the name is not uncommon there.

The M. Morales noted on the sign is Martin (Matteo) Morales, my husband’s great-grandfather. He was born in Mezzojuso, Sicily in 1856. I have not pinned down his arrival – census records are difficult to read, but my best guess is 1887. Martin settled in Houston, Texas. “& Sons” were Simone (my husband’s grandfather) and Joseph. Although the business dealt in other fruits and produce, bananas took precedence. When the family talks about the business, they refer to it as “the banana house.”

The 1920 U.S. Census lists Martin as having no occupation, so perhaps he had retired by then and turned the business over to his sons. He died in 1924.

The picture above is cropped from the photograph below. We don’t know the identity of anyone in the picture, why the deer is hanging there, or when the picture was taken. The truck on the right appears to be a delivery truck for the business, although most of the lettering is cut out of the picture, so I guess I can’t be sure.

The 1929 City Directory for Houston has the following listing:

MORALES M & SONS
(Simon M and Jos M Morales) Wholesale
Bananas, “We Are Never Out,”
812 Commerce av.
Phone Pr 6494

You can see a portion of the slogan on the far left of the picture. My husband is in possession of a promotional item from the business. It is metal and rather heavy. The slogan is a little different.

The banana house was located at 812 Commerce Ave. which is near the convergence of Buffalo Bayou and White Oaks Bayou. Boats and barges traveled up the ship channel and delivered produce and other goods to businesses in this area. Railroad lines were also located nearby. Commerce Avenue became known as “Produce Row.”

This area of Houston experienced two major floods in the early 1900s – in 1929 and 1935. We have several undated pictures of flooding in the area in our collection of family photos. It seems likely that the banana house was flooded, but we don’t know for sure.

A law firm purchased the building (formerly two structures) located on the 800 block of Commerce in 1971 and renovated it for use as office space “with the goal of maintaining the original integrity of the structure.” Their website provides some history of the building and a really small picture that looks a bit like our picture above. We have heard that there are photos of the old building inside. (Once again, I am unable to embed the street view from google maps.) It looks like the end of the block where 812 would have been is a parking lot.

The only other picture we have of the banana house is a rather grainy copy of Simone (Mooney) in the office.

I sure wish we had a better copy so we could see more detail. When I emailed this picture to another member of the family, she wrote back, “Uncle Mooney was the happy go lucky Morales and he seems so somber in this picture.” Also undated – I’m guessing 1940s. Mooney retired when he was fairly young and died in 1968.

Fresh Air on NPR has an interesting interview with Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. Listening to it while driving during traffic one day, I learned that the variety of bananas our grandparents ate were destroyed by a fungus and that the bananas we eat today (apparently much inferior in taste and durability) are also at risk of being wiped out in the near future. There’s a good bit of banana history and culture in the interview, if you are interested.

I feel I must end with a banana song. Since the business slogan was “We Are Never Out”, I thought Yes, We Have No Bananas to be the logical choice. (What a silly song to sing in that beautiful dress!) My husband, however, thinks Please No Squeeza da Banana is a better choice.

 

Now stop squeezing the bananas and go shop at some other Sepia Saturday merchants.

 

P.S. The Mandola family were also grocers in Houston. Damian Mandola (perhaps you caught him on his cooking show on PBS several years ago) operates three locations of Mandola’s Italian Market in Austin, TX. Each has a wall (photo 5 in the gallery) dedicated to historical photographs of Italian grocers – mostly in Texas. The photo of the banana house is there as are photos of the Ferraras – my husband’s great-aunt and uncle, who had a grocery store in New Orleans.

 

 

31 comments on “Sepia Saturday – The Banana House

  1. Great family story. I have never heard the Please No Squeeza Da Banana Song before. Pretty funny.

  2. I helped index the 1940 census and it seemed every Italian immigrant family was a peddler of fruit and vegetables, no matter what city I was working on. I found that so fascinating and admirable too because I just knew those were the families determined to make it in America.

    I love the banana paperweights, or whatever they were. What a great keepsake from the business.

    Excellent post — I enjoyed every bit of it.

  3. Kathy Matthews on said:

    Kathy, this amazing! All of it. Thank you so much.

    Kathy M.

  4. viridian on said:

    What a great family history. thank you for sharing. Now I have read several Sepia Saturday posts that include bananas as well as oysters!

  5. Jo Graham on said:

    Terrific family stories, and I love the Please Don’t Squeeza song – very funny :-)

  6. Alan Burnett on said:

    What a fascinating post. I think it was Napoleon who once said that “Britain was a nation of shopkeepers” but judging by the way that so many people have been able to link shops to their family history this week, the claim can be made of almost any country.

  7. Peter Miebies on said:

    That is a very nice picture of the Morales wholesale business. I read their slogan “we are never out” as “we are always here”, which is good for business.
    There is a banana bar in Amsterdam but I’m not sure you want to know about that :)

    • Ha! The linked interview describes how the shape of the banana was a problem for the fruit import companies and they did a lot of advertising to make it seem acceptable during those Victorian days and also introduced recipes to disguise the shape.

  8. Bob Scotney on said:

    I would never have associated the Morales name with Italy. Just shows how wrong you can be. This is a fine family story which I enjoyed a lot. Everyone watching was interested in that deer.

    • I don’t know my world history very well, but I think Spain controlled Sicily for many years. There are many similar names Siracusa/Siragosa, for example. I suppose the name was originally Spanish.

  9. Brett Payne on said:

    Whatever the background story to a deer hanging outsude a banana warehouse, that’s an excellent shot for a Sepia Saturday contribution, and I really like the metal banana heirloom. I wonder if it was perhaps made from lead, and given to valued customers for use as a paper weight?

  10. postcardy on said:

    I had never heard about the banana fungus before. I eat a banana every day, and I sure hope that bananas don’t get wiped out.

    • He did make it sound as though we can expect the variety we consume most commonly to be wiped out, although I think he said genetic modification could solve the problem.

  11. Brett Payne on said:

    I have been led to believe that the reason why present day bananas are so vulnerable is that most of those produced commercially lack genetic diversity, having been derived from a very small number of plants in the original rootstock.

    • I’d have to listen to the interview again, but as I remember, the author said they are so vulnerable because all banana plants are essentially clones -no seeds – so I think you are right. No genetic diversity.

  12. Karen S. on said:

    Kathy what a wonderful post- a great family indeed, and your photos are perfect!

  13. Little Nell on said:

    So we both went bananas this week! I really enjoyed this post and I’d never herd then Squeeze song before; very funny.

  14. Kristin on said:

    I remember hearing that interview and bananas have never tasted the same. I’m sure they tasted better when I was a kid.

  15. Smadar Belkind Gerson on said:

    Kathy, thanks so much for bringing your blog post to my attention. I loved reading about the Morales family and their produce business. I know you read my post about the photo taken of my ggf William Bloomfield standing infront of the Guenard building on Produce Row. I don’t know if you so the follow-up Friday’s Faces From the Past: Mystery Man http://bit.ly/W4UCel which further discusses the William’s employment in the family produce business Houston Fruit and Produce (906 Commerce Street), owned by William’s uncles. We also have a family tale about the original owner Morris Pomerantz being a Banana Salesman! Wouldn’t it have been amazing if I had recognized people in your photo? Unfortunately, I don’t have not.

    • kathy on said:

      Hi Smadar, No I haven’t read the follow-up post, but will as soon as I can. (I’ve been helping my daughter paint all day.) Too bad you didn’t recognize anyone in our picture! That really would have been amazing. We’ll ask around the family and see if anyone recognizes your family names.

  16. Smadar Belkind Gerson on said:

    Kathy, I was able to date this picture of the flood to the 1929 flood. See my latest post: Photo Detective Study of Produce Row http://bit.ly/14q4JLK. There is a film clip from the 1935 flood which I think shows the Morales store. Take a look and see what you think!

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