Published by
Designed by
Compagnie antilles, French, 1900 - 1910
Photograph by
Subject of
Unidentified Woman or Women
ca. 1910
silver and photographic gelatin on photographic paper with ink on paper (fiber product)
H x W: 5 1/2 × 3 1/2 in. (14 × 8.9 cm)
The colonial postcard, popular in the first two decades of the 20th century, came to represent both the technological triumphs of western photography – in printing and mass production – and the political triumphs of European conquest and expansion. These postcards also promoted tourism to the French Caribbean, painting the region as a safe, favorable, and exotic travel destination.
Historically, plantain trees grew in the French Caribbean, offering shade to coffee, cacao, and vanilla crops. As the 18th century progressed and French colonizers increasingly relied on the labor of enslaved persons, they planted additional bananas, turning the crop into a major food source for the islands’ enslaved populations. In the late 19th century, French colonizers introduced the dessert banana to the French Caribbean, hoping that the region would become a major international supplier of the exotic and sought-after fruit. Photography and postcards depicting the French Caribbean’s copious banana supply emphasized the region’s burgeoning market, however a lack of transportation infrastructure in the French Caribbean impeded the crop’s largescale distribution. With the establishment of "banana republics" in Central Americam, the early 20th century saw the age of industrical banana cropping in Martinique. Bananas continued to be grown locally and sold by vendors such as the woman pictured.
The woman in this image wears a traditional, five-piece French Caribbean formal ensemble called a douillette, which is derived from the grand robe worn by early French settlers. Prior to Emancipation, dress codes required enslaved women to wear a chemise jupe, an informal bodice and skirt ensemble. Douillettes would have been worn by mulattas and free black women. Following Emancipation, black women resisted these old dress codes by donning elaborate douillettes that were previously forbidden. The douillette dress is made of colored or shiny fabric and is worn over a petticoat and accessorized with a satin foulard shawl over the shoulders.
The ensemble is finished with a madras head scarf, albeit covered with a bunch of bananas. Originally produced in the Chennai region of southeast India, madras cloth became popular amongst Creole women in the 18th century and replaced the white cotton head kerchief which was associated with the dress codes of enslavement. In the early twentieth century, Guadeloupian and Martiniquan women reclaimed this head adornment as their own and many wore madras head scarves with their douillette and chemise jupes. The square or rectangular piece of madras cloth was worn over the forehead and folded to display varying numbers of peaks. The head scarf can be tied in a ceremonial fashion or can be worn to show the availability of the woman in courtship, depending on the number of peaks tied into it. One peak represents that the woman is single, two that she is married, three that she is widowed or divorced, and four that she is available to any who tries.
A photographic postcard of an unidentified woman, a banana vendor, from the French Caribbean in a traditional Creole douillette ensemble. She wears a light colored floral grand robe with a foulard shawl around her shoulders and tucked into her waist. Her skirt has extra fabric tied in a knot at the front. She is featured standing, with her left hand on her hip and her right hand holding a bunch of bananas. She is wearing a madras headscarf and has another bunch of bananas on her head. The background is a painted forest and bridge scene. The image has a white border surrounding. [Compagnie des Antilles. - Priopriétaire de la Marque Rhum Chauvet] is printed in black on the top of the postcard above the woman. On the bottom of the postcard, [I. - Marchande de bananes aux Antilles] is printed. The back of the postcard is unused and has [CARTE POSTALE] printed in black at the top and in smaller letters printed underneath [La Correspondance au recto n'est pas acceptée par tous les Pays Etrangers. (Se renseigner à la Poste.)]. Below, are blank spaces for [CORRESPONDANCE] and [ADRESSE]. Four dark blank lines are below the Adresse. The first line begins with [M____].
Place captured
Martinique, Caribbean, Latin America, North and Central America
Cultural Place
France, Europe
Madras, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, Asia
Media Arts-Photography
Memorabilia and Ephemera
African diaspora
Clothing and dress
French colonialism
Credit Line
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Object number
Restrictions & Rights
Public domain
Proper usage is the responsibility of the user.

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