The Fragrant Resolve of Florida Water: How Myth and Marketing Created a Distinctly American Scent

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We have the choicest fragrance of flowers, fresh and invigorating as from a bouquet newly culled. The hot and feverish head, bathed with it, becomes cool and easy. The temples laved with it, relieves the racking nervous headache. Poured into the water of the bath, the weary body and overtaxed brain emerges fresh and vigorous. Inhaled from the handkerchief, it imparts the most exquisite enjoyment, and sprinkled in the sick-room it soothes and relieves the restless invalid.

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This flowery description, taken from the back of an 1880 trade card for Murray and Lanman’s Florida Water, details the plethora of uses their product offers. Today, their site claims that the product’s sustained success is due not only to its “delightful fragrance” as a perfume but also the “more than twenty uses attributed to it.” An “Americanized” eau de cologne, Florida Water’s base ingredient is alcohol, in which essential oils are dissolved. Historically, lavender has always been the main scent, but bergamot, lemon, orange, and a variety of others could all be added to achieve a particular fragrance.

Castor oil bottle with du Maurier label

Castor oil bottle with du Maurier label, showing a fountain at the center

Introduced for the first time in 1808, Florida Water was an established commodity in American perfumery shops as early as the 1830s and was considered a drugstore staple by the 1850s. Although a generic product, it came to be typified by the original and oft-imitated company of Robert J. Murray and David T. Lanman, based out of New York City and later New Jersey. Murray and Lanman dominated the Florida Water market with their castor oil bottle shape and visually appealing labels, created by French designer George du Maurier.

Both men and women would apply Florida Water to their skin and clothing, drink it, spray it in the air to prevent infection, use it as aftershave, fill their bathtubs with it, and more. With so many uses, Florida Water was an indispensable product for any nineteenth-century home. Its multi-faceted nature gave the product adaptability necessary for sustaining demand. Florida Water tapped into centuries-old traditions in which manufactured scented spirits were not distinguished from natural medicinal waters. A fourteenth-century legend, for example, held that Hungary Water (of similar qualities) restored the maidenly beauty of the Hungarian Queen.

The Eurasian myth of the Fountain of Youth, believed to restore youth and beauty beyond the normal span of time, may explain why an 1808 company based out of New York City decided to name their product after a Spanish territory that would not be ceded to the U.S. for another eleven years. For Robert Murray, La Florida was home to Juan Ponce de Léon’s fabled quest for the Fountain of Youth. This myth fit the exotic bill that would sell bottles claiming to contain a panacea of restorative waters.

Statue of Ponce de Léon in St. Augustine, Florida

Statue of Ponce de Léon in St. Augustine, Florida

The Florida Water namesake illustrates the tenacity of myth. Ponce de Léon never searched for a Fountain of Youth, long associated with the old port town of St. Augustine, Florida. The Spanish explorer and later governor of Puerto Rico embarked on a voyage in 1513 to discover the supposedly wealthy island of Beniny, north of Hispaniola. Only with Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo in his Historia general y natural de las indias of 1535 did Ponce’s voyage become inaccurately associated with the supposed Fountain of Youth. Oviedo claims that the explorer was seeking the fountain as a cure for his “enflaquecimiento del sexo,” or sexual impotence.

1881 attempt 3

Murray & Lanman Advertising Trade Card, c. 1881

When Ponce de Léon landed on the mainland, which did not fit his description of the island, he named it La Florida (“The Flowery”) because it was Easter season and vegetation was in full bloom. It is possible Murray named his product after the Territory of Florida simply because of its translation. However, a fountain became the dominant motif in du Maurier’s labels. Trade cards—old-school advertisements exchanged in social circles to clients and potential customers, often repeated this theme. While the Fountain of Youth’s grip on the American psyche has remained effectual even through today, scientific skepticism eventually led to a devaluation of Florida Water’s curative capacities.

In regards to eau de cologne’s medicinal abilities, American chemist John Snively in 1877 asserted that “at this day, save its occasional application as a lotion for headache, not the slightest pretensions are made for it in that line.” Paired with skepticism was the increasing scientific knowledge behind perfume making. Advances in organic chemistry and the ascension of synthetics to replace hard-to-find natural oils led to an increased market for perfume. The New York Times, on August 14, 1870, stated that general perfume use “may be dated back to almost fifteen years ago,” around 1855. Previous to that, “comparatively little was used, and the bulk of that was imported.”

FloridaWater_parrot

Murray & Lanman Advertising Trade Card

By the turn of the century, Florida Water companies were downplaying medicinal capacities and focusing predominantly on the product as a perfume. In the second volume of The Woman’s Book—a manual for home-living published in 1894—the author extols the virtues of a bath with added Florida Water, after which “the perfume it leaves about her person will not be sufficiently powerful to cause discomfort to any one.” The author compares this delicate description with the “extraordinary cheapness” of other perfumes in the market with which a woman could drench herself “until she becomes offensive to all who come near her.” A proper fragrance demanded judicious and indirect use. Florida Water, adding to its array of uses, was a choice product for this endeavor.

Florida Water’s versatile nature helped it adapt to a changing market. The du Maurier label and castor oil bottle also contributed to the product’s continued success, as Lanman and Kemp (renamed in 1861) relied on their tradition and signature look to maintain sales in the midst of imitative competition. In 1957 the company moved west across the Hudson River, first to Palisades Park and later to Westwood, New Jersey, due to the need for a larger production facility. Only with the advent of increased market specialization has Florida Water lost some of its sway. Today, deodorants, mouthwashes, aftershave lotions, and a variety of other products have replaced a product that once addressed all of these needs. Whether these specialized products could survive a transitioning market as did Florida Water is debatable. It is unquestionable, though, that Florida Water’s origins, which played no small part in the product’s appeal, represent a distinctly American link in a chain of myth passed down through the ages.

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Click here for a brief but interesting read on the debated location of Ponce de Léon’s 1513 Florida landing.

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Sources:

Catherine Sullivan, “Searching for Nineteenth-Century Florida Water Bottles,” in Historical Archaeology, vol. 28, no. 1 (1994): 78-98.

Douglas T. Peck, “Anatomy of an Historical Fantasy: The Ponce de Léon-Fountain of Youth Legend,” in Revista de Historia de América, no. 123 (Jan.-Dec., 1998): 63-87.

“Something About Perfumery: History of its Manufacture and Use—The Perfume of Ages Past, and the Articles of the Present Days—Complaints of the Manufacturers,” The New York Times, August 14, 1870.

Various authors, The Woman’s Book: Dealing Practically with the modern conditions of home-life, self-support, education, opportunities, and everyday problems, vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1894).

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