Suggestively crescent-shaped bananas were the rage of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where well-to-do fairgoers could buy the exotic fruit for a dime. After the event -- which functioned as a debutante's ball for the tropical import -- the banana remained a status symbol, decorating dining room tables and serving as a formal portrait prop.
"I've never found any documentation of why they would pose with bananas," says bananiana collector Ann Lovell, who three years ago opened the Washington Banana Museum under the auspices of a downtown Auburn antiques shop. Lovell's collection of nearly 5000 banana-related pieces includes dozens of images of Gilded Age sophisticates brandishing banana bunches.
Lovell allows there might be an equal number of vintage photos depicting sitters with oranges, but she's only looked for pictures with bananas. And as someone who's spent 30 years buying all things banana, she can surely appreciate the urge to reach for a banana.
"My parents used to call me Anna Banana, and then people gave them to me," Lovell says of her hobby's start. "My favorite part right now is the old cookbooks."
A few years back, determined to be ready if she was asked for a banana recipe, Lovell perfected a Hawaiian banana bread. After all the postcards, shipping labels and sheet music, she still likes eating bananas.
Only a small fraction of Lovell's collection is displayed at Bananas Antiques, although Lovell tries to regularly rotate the objects in her display cases near the front of Benjamin Bigford's store. She also updates her website with thematic finds: She recently posted an online exhibit of her banana valentines.
The store display cases are conspicuously marked "not for sale," but Lovell says shoppers frequently make offers on banana items, especially toys remembered from childhood. The current display includes a banana ride-on toy; a banana golf putter; banana slat-and pepper shakers and a banana-shaped bass.
"It's so funny, because the guy who plays bass with the Auburn Symphony came in and tuned it," Lovell says. "He played 'Stairway to Heaven'. It didn't sound very good."