Internal Context: A Look Into the Inclusion Files

One of the most rewarding aspects of rare book cataloging is seeing and decoding the various markers of history that make their way into the pages. Most of these markers are permanent – bookplates, sellers’ and binders’ tickets, annotations, and doodles are inextricably linked to the physical item and can’t be removed.

Boarding pass, Belfast

Boarding pass, Belfast, March 26, 1968 Found in: High Upon the Gallows Tree, by Anthony Glynn (1967) DA690 .M4 G58 IRISH

However, for a lot of the books in the Burns Library, the most revealing clues about an item’s history can be removed, and in fact should be. Due to their potential research value, these materials aren’t thrown out, but housed in an acid-free folder, and can be pulled and viewed

Illustrated short poem: Worry is like a rocking chair- it gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere

Illustrated poem Found in: Light from the West, by William H. Marnell (1978) BX4659 .I7 M28 1978

alongside the book they came from. Think of everything you shove into your books – notes, official bookmarks, unofficial bookmarks, flowers or leaves to press, Post-Its (public service announcement: please don’t stick Post-Its to your books). This isn’t a new practice, and a lot of the books we get at Burns aren’t cleared out before arrival (and rightly so!). Continue reading

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The United Fruit Company in the Williams Collection

In the constitution of this small, banana republic was a forgotten section that provided for the maintenance of a navy.

–O. Henry, “The Admiral” (147)

Food Value

A ruddy-cheeked boy eating a banana on the cover of a United Fruit Company booklet, John J Burns Library, Boston College.

The unremarkable sentence above, which appeared in O. Henry’s 1904 collection Cabbages and Kings, constitutes the first use of the term “banana republic” to refer to a Latin American nation under the sway of U.S.-based fruit companies. O. Henry based the “banana republic” in question, called “Anchuria” in the book, on his experiences in Honduras. Ever since, “banana republic” has carried connotations of corruption, mismanagement, and imperial meddling. The United Fruit Company was foremost among the corporations engaged in the economic imperialism that created banana republics. A 1950 poem by Pablo Neruda, “United Fruit Co.,” suggests how some perceived the company: “It re-baptized the lands/ ‘Banana Republics’/ and on the sleeping dead…it alienated free wills,/ gave crowns of Caesar as gifts,/ unsheathed jealousy, attracted/ the dictatorship of the flies” (95). That reputation, and the “exoticness” of the banana as a relative newcomer in the American diet, were obstacles which the United Fruit Company was highly conscious of. The Burns Library holds a number of works printed by the United Fruit Company. As part of the Williams Ethnological Collection, the United Fruit Company pamphlets and tracts were once part of the personal library of Joseph J. Williams, SJ, These texts afford a view into how the United Fruit Company wished to present itself to the world.

In order to sell more bananas, the United Fruit Company first had to persuade people to eat more bananas. A good deal of research seems to have gone into this effort. A four-page pamphlet titled Bibliography on the Food Value of the Banana, compiled by the company’s Research Department in 1930, contains nothing but a list of 51 sources, suggesting that it was intended for internal, rather than public, use.  The bibliography


The back cover of The Food Value of the Banana demonstrates the stages of ripening banana.

includes such scientific articles of apparent significance as P. Rohmer’s “The Stimulating Action of Vitamin C on Certain Forms of Chronic Indigestion in Infancy” and J.J. McNamara’s “Lowell Fights Undernourishment Among Its School Children”. A simple browse through the bibliography’s titles suggests that the company was interested in the potential of the banana to combat medical conditions including nephritis, scurvy, constipation, and especially celiac disease. No fewer than nine of the 51 items in the bibliography include the word “celiac” in their titles. (In fact, bananas were considered a miracle cure for symptoms of celiac, with doctors sometimes prescribing children to eat as many as 200 bananas per week. Bananas were, in fact, so good at masking its symptoms that this practice contributed to a widespread tendency to under-diagnose the disease [Neimark 2017].)

Other documents were more clearly intended for mass distribution. A sense for the tone of this banana propaganda may be gleaned from Bananas: A Food Children Need:

Like the Good Fairy at the Royal Christening, Mother Nature bestowed a precious gift on childhood when she fashioned the banana. Thinking to create a food both nutritious and delightful to taste, she combined in its tender pulp all the sustenance of a vegetable and the sweet succulence of a fruit. Then with golden sunshine for her color scheme, she sealed it safe from dust and dirt in a germ-proof packaging. (2)

This pamphlet consists of 24 pages of nutritional banana facts, banana recipes, and expert medical opinions on bananas, aimed toward children and the parents responsible for feeding them. Another pamphlet, The New Banana, affords not only 63 recipes for those wishing to eat bananas literally morning, noon, and night, but fun “banana news,” as well – including the tale of “a young Norwegian” who (purportedly) walked the 250 miles from Olso to Christianssand entirely on a diet of bananas and milk (United Fruit Company 1931).

A small map on the inside cover of The New Banana shows the area of the United Fruit Company’s operations in Central America.

Carib Map

A small map on the inside cover of The New Banana shows the area of the United Fruit Company’s operations in Central America. John J Burns Library, Boston College

The increasing popularity of the banana among American consumers meant a great deal of work for the company – not just in the direct growing and harvesting of bananas,  but in building infrastructure and communities for its employees, as well. A publicity brochure for the company, United Fruit Company: Nature and Scope of its Activities claims that tropical diseases made the 3,482,042 acres owned or leased by the company unworkable prior to the company’s intervention, which “transformed the zone of its tropical operation into modern sanitary and healthful communities” (United Fruit Company 1931, 6). Its 80,000 employees “maintain[ed] water works, electric light and ice plants, laundries and bakeries… churches, schools, baseball grounds, tennis courts, golf courses and swimming pools” (United Fruit Company 1931, 7). These amenities, the brochure stresses, were for both American and local employees, and the greater communities at large. Perhaps out of sensitivity to a widespread perception of the company as an overbearing imperialist power, the brochure emphasizes corporate policies geared toward making its employees decent and respectful guests:

It is the fixed policy of the United Fruit Company that its officials and employees in the


An illustration accompanying the recipes in The New Banana, captioned: “Bananas are something to rave about in pies and tarts….  For icebox desserts, too, so newly popular with the universal use of automatic refrigerators, they are delectable. They give the mixture a creamy, melt-in-the-mouth smoothness. A frozen mousse is illustrated.”

tropics speak the Spanish language, and that while those who are not citizens refrain from all political activities and affiliations, yet they must support all that is best in the social and cultural life of the countries in which they work. (United Fruit Company 1931, 7)

Sensitivity to the company’s image as an overbearing imperial power seems to inform much of the company’s messaging. In a speech given to Institute of Politics in 1925 (published in a collection of Cutter’s speeches under the title Trade Relations with Latin America), United Fruit Company president Victor M. Cutter attempts to head off such characterizations at the outset:

I hold no brief for imperialism and deprecate any slightest imperialistic tendency on the part of the United States towards Latin America. I have, however, no patience with theorists who hold that commercial relations do not bring closer understanding between people… Cultural and intellectual harmony between nations has invariably followed commercial and industrial relationships which have enabled them to acquire the physical comforts and mechanical devices which give leisure for cultural and intellectual pursuits. (Cutter 1929, 5)

The idea that international trade would foster a flourishing of international peace, understanding, and mutual prosperity is an old one; former slave and memoirist Olaudah Equiano ends his 1789 Interesting Narrative by recommending the same program for Britain’s relationship with Africa, for example. Cutter returns to this theme


The United Fruit Company had a sideline in passenger cruises. This photograph from Jamaica Via the Great White Fleet shows Americans on vacation in the Caribbean. John J Burns Library, Boston College

at numerous points in his address, and even positions himself as an emissary for Americans’ understanding of Central America:  “Nearly all Americans,” Cutter says, “have a very badly exaggerated impression of unstable political conditions, and an almost total lack of appreciation of the ancient art and culture to be found in the Central American cities” (48). In Cutter’s account, and in those of his company’s publications, the United Fruit Company functions as a benevolent entity respectfully bringing industry and infrastructure to a disadvantaged but proud region’s people.

Was this the case? Pablo Neruda clearly didn’t believe it was, and history supply evidence for his view of the company as a meddling imperial presence. The United Fruit Company’s literature for public consumption neglects, for example, to mention the 1928 Banana Massacre, when Colombian soldiers murdered a number (somewhere between 47 and 2000, depending on whether one believes the army’s account or local folk history) of striking United Fruit Company workers.  Although the company’s direct involvement with the massacre has never been proven, it’s willingness to cooperate with the Colombian government before and after it contributed to the company’s reputation for repressive activities and support for despotism (Bucheli 2005, 183). That reputation may go some way to explaining why the company pursued such an aggressive propaganda campaign beginning just a few years later. Whether the company was ultimately a force for the development or the exploitation of Latin America may still be open to debate, but scholars wishing to investigate the company’s side of the argument are welcome to do so at our library.


  • Eric Pencek, Boston College PhD Candidate (Reading Room Assistant), John J. Burns Library


Works Consulted:


  • Bucheli, Marcelo. Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Columbia, 1899-2000. New York: NYU Press, 2005.
  • Cutter, Victor Macomber. Trade Relations with Latin America. Boston: United Fruit Company, 1929.
  • Henry, O. “The Admiral.” In Cabbages and Kings. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co, 1904.
  • Neimark, Jill. “Doctors Once Thought Bananas Cured Celiac Disease. They Saved Kids’ Lives – At a Cost.” National Public Radio, Incorporated online, last modified May 24, 2017.
  • Neruda, Pablo. The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems. Edited by Mark Eisner. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2004.
  • United Fruit Company. The New Banana. Boston: United Fruit Company, 1931.
  • —. Jamaica Via the Great White Fleet. Boston: United Fruit Company, 1913.
  • United Fruit Company Educational Department. Bananas: A Food Children Need. Boston: United Fruit Company, 1930 (?).
  • United Fruit Company Publicity Department. United Fruit Company: Nature and Scope of Its Activities. Boston (?): s.n., 1931.
  • United Fruit Company Research Department. Bibliography on the Food Value of the Banana. Boston: United Fruit Company, 1930.
  • —. The Food Value of the Banana: A Compilation from Recognized Authorities. Boston: United Fruit Company, 1929.
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The many business endeavors of Pamela Colman Smith

You’ve probably encountered the artwork of Pamela Colman Smith before, even if you didn’t realize.  Colman Smith drew the images for the most well-known tarot deck, and these popular images are still commonly reprinted and used on tarot decks today.

Hand-colored print and poem by P.C.S.

“The Green Sheaf” from The Green Sheaf by Pamela Colman Smith (ed.), John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Colman Smith produced more than a tarot deck, however. Going by the nickname Pixie, she was an active part of Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ literary circle. She and Irish artist Jack B. Yeats co-published the literary magazine The Broad Sheet.   Colman Smith eventually decided she wanted her own journal, however, and began The Green Sheaf, which Burns Library has in its holdings.

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Buried Treasure: A Fresh Look at a Well-loved Collection Unearths Some Rarely-used Gems

Flat cardboard box with lid removed and placed to the side. The lid has a photograph of post-earthquake Kingston, Jamaica attached to it. Inside the box is a scrapbook with leaves on the cover.

“Souvenir of the Isle of Springs,” Box 15, Joseph J. Williams, SJ ethnological collection, MS.2009.030, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

The Joseph J. Williams, SJ Ethnological Collection is known for its wealth of material about the Caribbean and Africa, including maps, wills, ship logs, and stories of the folk character Anansi. But even the most well-used archival collections can contain some surprises.

Close up of scrapbook, showing linen overlay and hand-stitched binding.

While re-processing the Williams Collection, archives staff came across an item with the mysterious title “Souvenir of the Isle of Springs” — which didn’t tell us much about its format or content. At first glance, the object appeared to be a photograph of Kingston, Jamaica after the 1907 earthquake, mounted on a thick piece of worn cardboard. But we soon realized that it was a box, and when we removed the top, a delicate handmade scrapbook was revealed inside.

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Medicine in the Middle Ages: Rare Books in the Burns Library

While working in the library catalog, I set to searching one of my favorite topics, the Medieval period. Trying to narrow the search results, I added the term medicine to see what would come up. There were a number of modern books, though one in particular stood out. It was a book concerning medical thought in the Middle Ages, published in the Middle Ages, titled Marsilius Ficinus Florentinus De triplici vita. (This roughly translates to The Triple Life by Marsilio Ficino of Florence, better known as Three Books on Life.) It was an important work at the time, as it combined his philosophy of Neoplatonism (more on that later), medicine, and astrology. Contained within are three books, each detailing different aspects of health, including methods to increase longevity and how to maintain a healthy body through nourishment of the spiritus (a somewhat ambiguous human feature that relates the physical body to the soul). The work is particularly aimed at scholars, seeing them as distinctly prone to ailments and melancholy, and suggested remedies in astrological changes.

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From Chasubles to Spider Puppets: The Lessons, Joys, and Challenges of Curating at Burns Library

A new Burns Library exhibit, The Object in the Archives: Networks & Materiality at John J. Burns Library is on display through June, 2018. Comprised of objects from 30 different collections at Burns Library, this exhibit examines how an object moves from personal possession to archival object and the relationships and connections that develop between and across objects, collections, and researchers. This project had its genesis in two distinct places; the first was my own scholarly work in Victorian literature, new materialisms, and material culture studies and the ways in which matter and materiality are active and independent.(1) The second was a casual comment I made over the summer while I was working that I enjoyed helping with exhibits but had never had the chance to curate one. Katherine Fox, Head of Public Services and Engagement at Burns, suggested that I pitch a proposal for an exhibit and The Objects in the Archives began to take shape.

Given my interest in material culture, the objects in Burns Library’s collection were a natural focus for my exhibit. I established the central idea—the connections between object and researcher, past and present—and then started exploring Burns to see what artifacts were available. This exploration including talking to individual staff members about some of their favorite objects in the collections, searching finding aids of unfamiliar collections for artifacts, and looking for objects that fell into categories of particular interest to me, such as textiles. The joy of the early stages of exhibit development is the possibility: there are so many choices! As I learned more about individual collections and artifacts, I began to trace networks of connectivity between items that helped to focus my searches and choices. At this point the technical side of exhibit development began. I met with Katherine Fox and Amy Braitsch, Head Archivist, to discuss the topic of the exhibit and the types of artifacts I was interested in displaying. Katherine and Amy affirmed my topic, asked questions, suggested objects, outlined care and use guidelines, and provided me with a general timeline and task list to follow.

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The Contention of The Bards: Loyalty, Learning, & Literature

Map of Ireland, split into the 4 provinces

The four provinces of Ireland, demonstrating the progression of English conquest in Ireland and the migration of English and Scottish settlers to Ireland, circa 1515-1625. This was the context in which The Contention of The Bards took place.

Iomarbhaidh Na Bhfileadh, or The Contention of The Bards (c. 1616-1624), was a series of polemical poems sparked by The Flight of the Earls (1608, itself a result of the English victory against Aodh Mór Ó Néill and his Irish forces in the Nine Years War, 1594-1603) that pit the poets of Munster against those of Ulster. Curiously, the Contention is often neglected by scholars, despite its fascinating insights into Irish responses to the calamities caused by the English victory in the Nine Years War. It is also a strong look into the obscure world of the Irish poet class and their systems of knowledge and learning. Fortunately, the Burns Library has a physical copy of the only collection of the poems translated into English.These poems, upon close inspection, remain relevant not just to our understanding of Irish history but also to our contemporary debates surrounding “knowledge” and “truth.”

Photograph of book binding with gold Celtic medallion

McKenna, Lambert. Iomarḃáġ Na ḃfileaḋ : The Contention of the Bards. Irish Texts Society (Series) ; v. 20, 21. London: Published for the Irish Texts Society by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent, 1918. Green binding featuring a gold Celtic style medallion and the series title, title, and author’s name in gold text.

The Contention began when a Munster poet, Tadhg mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha (Tadhg Mac Brody, 1570-1652), criticized fifth century historical poet Torna. In so doing, Tadhg challenged the legitimacy and supremacy of the great septs of Ulster. Predictably, this sparked the poets of Ulster to defend their patrons. In this time, Irish elites, poets, and political leaders were loyal first and foremost to their septs and interested in their own local interests. Even in the Nine Years War, leaders of Irish septs chose whether to join the rebellion, fight against it, or remain neutral primarily based on their understanding of what would benefit their own position.

Image of Irish Manuscript

P. 370, Keating, Geoffrey. ?1507-?1644. Foras Feasa Ar Eirinn, [i.e. History of Ireland] transcribed by William Sheehan, 1737- 1755, at Coolemhota (MS.1986.085.005), John J. Burns Library, Boston College

In fact, Tadhg’s patron, Donogh O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond and leader of the great O’Brien sept, was one of the most important leaders of the loyalist forces. His motivations were in no small part because of his desires to have the crown reallocate County Clare—where he held part of his estate—to the province of Munster, where he held greater political power.In early modern Ireland, loyalty and identity were determined first and foremost by one’s sept and its own local interests. This was plainly reflected in the poems of the Contention: of the 13 poets and their 30 poems, only a single poem from Mathghamhain O hIfearnain (Mahon O Heffernan, 1585-?) questioned this regionalism and tried to redirect attention to the Sasanach (English) threat.3

The regionalism, competing loyalties, and colonialist context, to the Contention are fascinating and of great historical significance- as such, they warrant greater historical attention. However, a singular focus on the politics of the poems would obscure an equally fascinating insight into the learned world of the Gaelic poet class. The poems demonstrate not just regional and familial loyalties but, also, profound learning and extensive education. The poets from both sides- who all would have been educated in Irish, Latin, and Greek- drew from the Bible and Classical Greek texts as well as Irish mythical-history to argue their points. The Contention, in fact, was primarily a debate over Irish mythical-history.

It is perhaps wise not to try to explain the erudite, verbose, and complicated histories debated amongst the poets in the Contention. It is worth mentioning, however, that the crux of the debate centered on the mythical-history of the supposed division of Ireland, north and south, and, subsequently, which half was better than the other. They traded boasts of their respective kings and insults to the other’s supposed kings, and they also argued over which half had produced more High Kings of Ireland. Much of the content of the debate came from Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of Invasions), a work of Irish-mythological history written in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was believed that the book contained absolute “truths” and,  in medieval and early modern Ireland, was taken as the source of legitimate knowledge about Irish history. Thus, all the poets frequently referred to it to bolster their claims.

The grounding and legitimation of knowledge in written texts was not new then, nor is it outdated now. However, it is something that appears to be increasingly questioned in our contemporary society. The example of the Contention might give credence to such skepticism. Surely we do not believe the mythical components of Ireland’s medieval texts that the poets in the Contention seemed to believe. Further, it is fair to note that the “knowledge” contained in the books served to empower the great families and septs who were the ones who patronized the poets- in other words, the promulgation of the knowledge of Ireland’s medieval texts served the poets’ own interests and that of their patrons. Nonetheless, this does not negate the merits of learning, written texts, and the endeavor for knowledge.

The commitment to critical understanding of the world and the academic process is not an endeavor that should be abandoned merely because it can never be perfect. In today’s world, academia is secular and mostly independent of power-sources. More importantly, there is a strict process of verifiable-research procedures and a demand on scholars, especially historians and other humanists, to maintain a degree of skepticism and caution with all evidence sources. Through critical dialogue and scholarly conventions, scholars today have developed an impressive understanding of our world in the various fields of knowledge, i.e. biology, chemistry, history, math, etc.

We here at Boston College, and especially at John J. Burns Library, remain committed to this project. After all, it was the fact that these poems were written down and preserved that we even know of their existence.

  • Michael Bailey,  Student Assistant to Kathleen Williams and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History

Works Consulted:

  1. Ed. Rev. L. McKenna, S.J., MA. Iomarbhaidh Na Bhfileadh: The Contention of The Bards (London: Irish Texts Society, 1918). The Burns’ copy is also that from which the digitization of the work derived from:;view=1up;seq=7
  2. Boylan, Henry. “O’Brien, Donough,” A Dictionary of Irish Biography. 3rd ed. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1998. Burns Library, Boston College.
  3. Mathghamhain O hIfearnain, Poem XI, in ed. Rev. McKenna, Iomarbhaidh Na Bhfileadh, 113.
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