The sponges of the west coast of Florida, from Apalachicola Bay to Key West, are famous for their textures, colors and versatility. And those from Key West soak up the most praise. These most simple of multi-cellular animals filter sea water through minuscule pores. From this filtration process the sponge gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs.
Key West is notable for the number of premier distinctions it has held - from once being the richest city per capita in America during its wrecking days, to being the Southernmost city in the United States in our own. The pattern holds true in regard to sponges. At the turn of the century, Key West supplied at least 90% of the sponges used in America.
Key West sponges were renowned for their remarkable quality and distinguishing colors. But world-wide economic conditions during the Great Depression, helped destroy the market for such things as high-quality sponges, and Key West saw another of its native industries disappear.
While sponges were contributing to Key West's fame and wealth, the sea introduced new players to the islands. Following the 1868 Cuban Revolution, many natives of that picturesque but troubled island made their way through the Gulf to the relative safety and security of Key West. These refugees brought with them the secrets of Cuban cigar manufacture. By the 1870's, cigar makers were swarming over Key West, arriving from Cuba almost daily.
In one of those odd instances that seem to punctuate the history of these marvelous islands, the newcomers, by pursuing cigar-making, provided for themselves an excellent income in an industry which didn't exist before their arrival, and which therefore didn't require them to compete with the natives for the few jobs otherwise available.
Key West is astonishing in this way. Like its fabled coral reefs, it generally creates a mutually acceptable and even beneficial existence for the diverse elements that constitute it.
Thanks in large part to the cigar makers, who by 1890 numbered nearly 6,000 and hand-rolled over 100 million cigars a year, Key West was the 13th largest port in the U.S.
The shotgun houses known as "cigar maker cottages" had added a new architectural wrinkle to Key West, and cigar advertisements from here eventually crossed the Atlantic and were influential in a wide range of German advertising artwork. Gradually the demand for cigars diminished, but lately, with the return of the cocktail lounge and the "swanky life," cigar afficionados have begun to seek out Key West cigars just as their grandfathers once did.
When wreckers and pirates roamed the seas near Key West they often captured large Green turtles to enrich their diets. These gentle creatures have a tender, veal-like meat and are easy to catch. Add that to their ability to survive for long periods on board ship in a era without refrigeration, and it wasn't long before many a sailor gained a fine appreciation for turtle soup.
By 1849, Key West, never a city content with existing ways of making a living, had its first turtle soup cannery. Known in many parts of the world as a delicacy, the Green turtle quickly became another Key West phenomenon.
By the 1970's, the world had become aware of the extent of man's degradation of the environment, and efforts were beginning to be undertaken in earnest to repair the damage. In the early part of the decade, Green turtles were put on the Endangered Species list, and another Key West industry disappeared.
But, if you are lucky enough to catch sight of one of these magnificent creatures you'll understand why this was a necessary trade-off. They are graceful and majestic, and their presence would be missed in the islands.
Key West's history is one of continuous change. In imitation of the coral which frames the islands, Key West accumulates new strata with each passing season and each season's passing fancy. From sponges that would delight any epicurean, to cigars the way they should be, to unprepossessing creatures of the sea who enrich our lives with their existence, Key West is layer upon layer of rich, vibrant life.