When Money Grew in Trees

Florida wouldn’t be Florida without its beautiful oak and cypress trees. Moreover, those picturesque trees would look awfully naked without their hanging curtains of Spanish moss blowing gently in the breeze. It’s an image that has been evoked a thousand times or more in art, song, novels and poetry. The moss even has its own legend, which countless tourists have sent home on postcards for friends and loved ones to read:

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

But let’s get a few things straight about Spanish moss, as it is a most peculiar species. For starters, it isn’t Spanish. It’s native to North America as far north as Virginia, so the Spanish can hardly lay claim to it. To be fair, they didn’t actually mean to give their name to the moss; that was the work of their colonial rivals, the French, during the 16th and 17th centuries. French explorers jokingly called the moss “Spanish beard,” while their Spanish counterparts responded in kind by calling it “French hair.” In those days, you clearly had to get your entertainment where you could find it.

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is also not actually a moss. In fact, as a bromeliad it has a closer relationship to the pineapple than it does to other species we would call “moss.” It’s an epiphyte, meaning it grows on other plants but is not parasitic. Contrary to popular belief, Spanish moss will not kill a tree if left unchecked, although it may produce enough shade to stunt its growth.

Picturesque as it may be, Spanish moss has long been known for more than just its good looks. Once its outer bark has been removed and the strong fibers inside have been allowed to dry, the resulting material is surprisingly strong, yet also soft enough to use for cushioning. Native Americans reportedly weaved dried moss into clothing, and early white settlers braided it into ropes and netting. As early as 1773, the roving naturalist William Bartram remarked during his tour of the Southeast that Spanish moss was “particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattresses, chairs, saddles, collars, etc.; and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it.” It also served as a popular curiosity and souvenir for Northern visitors. Tourists would take boxes of Spanish moss back home and hang it in their own trees, giving them a bit of Florida to enjoy until winter arrived and killed it off.

“The jolly old crowd in Auburndale,” some with Spanish moss adorning their heads (ca. 1920s).

It didn’t take the enterprising people of Florida long to figure out that this natural bounty could be harvested and sold for a profit. As early as 1834, a New Englander visiting Jacksonville commented on the growing moss industry in that area. The poet Sidney Lanier, who visited Florida in the 1870s, noted a similar factory just up the St. Johns River in Tocoi. The Census Bureau listed a moss processing plant at Pensacola in a supplement to the 1880 federal census, and there was a large moss factory at Gainesville as of 1882 as well. These businesses made their money by collecting moss from local forests, curing and ginning it, and then selling it to manufacturers up north, who used the material for cushions and mattresses and other products.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire document.

The moss business had its advantages and disadvantages. The supply was plentiful, and sometimes pecan and citrus grove operators actually paid moss collectors to rid them of the stuff, since it could decrease the trees’ production. Farm laborers often gathered moss during their off-season as a way to make extra money, gathering the material in their local woods and carting it to the nearest processing plant. The moss gatherer’s tool of choice was usually a long wooden pole with a hook or barb on one end, which could be twisted in the moss and pulled to bring it down in large clumps. From this point, however, the work was tough. The gray outer bark of the moss had to be removed to get to the strong fibers within, usually through a curing process. Moss factories sometimes did their own curing; other times they purchased pre-cured moss from their suppliers. Either way, workers would stack the moss in large piles or drop it into large trenches, and then soak the whole lot with water. This would cause the moss to rot and shed its bark. The longer the moss cured, the tougher and cleaner the inner fiber would become. Six months was required to produce the highest grade moss, which would sell at the highest price.

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Once the gray outer bark of the Spanish moss slipped off easily, workers removed it from its piles or trenches and hung it out on lines to dry in the sun. Rain, wind and friction combined forces to separate the bark from the dark fibers inside. At this stage, the cured moss would either be taken to a gin or sold to another company that would process the material. Cured moss was worth about 4 to 5 cents per pound as of the late 1950s, depending on how well it had been cleaned. The unit value of the finished product is tough to determine, since government figures often combine moss with other upholstery stuffing materials. State agriculture officials in the 1950s, however, estimated the overall value of the Florida moss crop to be about $500,000 per year.

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

These days, inner-spring mattresses have replaced moss-stuffed ones, and synthetic materials cushion our furniture and car seats. The moss factories that once hummed with activity from Pensacola to Gainesville to Leesburg and Apopka are no more. That’s not such a bad thing, of course. The silver lining–or gray, if you please–is that now we have more beautiful Spanish moss to enjoy in the trees where nature originally put it!

A Twist of ‘Phate

One curious aspect of Florida history is the recurring theme of booms and busts the state has experienced over the decades. We hear often about booms and busts in land sales, but commercial enterprises have had their own business cycles. One lesser known industry that was critical to Florida’s economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the mining of phosphates. Read more »

Let’s Have An Air Party

Of all the kinds of parties you can have – toga parties, foam parties, hurricane parties – an air party might seem the silliest. But that’s exactly the sort of celebration many of Florida’s major communities were throwing in the 1930s, when commercial aviation and air tourism were still in their infancy.

Program from Orlando's Second Annual "Air Party," January 1935 - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Program from Orlando’s Second Annual “Air Party,” January 1935 – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Officials in both the private and public sectors had recognized by this time that aviation offered Florida a marvelous opportunity. Distance, as one observer put it, just didn’t mean as much anymore when a trip that had once taken days could now be accomplished in a few hours. To encourage Florida’s growth as a destination for air tourism, state and local governments teamed up with private businesses to host air races, air parties, and other events. These efforts had two objectives: to sell Florida as a tourist destination by air to the rest of the country, and to convince Floridians of the worthiness of investing in better aviation infrastructure.

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

Air cruises, usually sponsored by chambers of commerce, aeronautical clubs, and other civic groups, were some of the most unique events. These were typically open to any “sportsman pilots” or private aviators who wanted to attend. The pilots would fly their planes from airport to airport along a chain of host cities, enjoying receptions, races, and other activities along the way. Here’s an example itinerary from the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise:

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

The towns along the route would often extend privileges to the visiting pilots at their local country clubs, hotels, and restaurants. In some cities – Orlando we know for sure – the pilots received fuel and oil at wholesale prices as an incentive. The local chambers of commerce often arranged ground transportation as well, and local groups provided opportunities for hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, and other favorite Florida pastimes.

Pilot Harold Neumann with

Pilot Harold Neumann with “Miss Chevrolet” in Miami (1936).

These groups were typically quite intimate, but their activities were highly visible and helped introduce a large number of people to the possibilities of aviation. A little more time, plus some help from World War II, saw Florida criss-crossed with busy commercial air routes and a whole new sector to its thriving tourist industry.

Interested in aviation or a related Florida industry? The State Library & Archives has a wide variety of books, ephemera, photographs, and manuscript collections touching on these subjects. The program and itinerary from this blog post, for example, came from a collection of papers belonging to William C. Lazarus, who once directed the Aviation Division of the State Road Department and helped organize a number of “air parties.” Search our catalogs to find out what we have on your favorite topic in Florida history!