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Sponge Industry

Scribner's Magazine


Although sponges, in one form or another, are among the most common articles of domestic use, it is doubtful if one person in ten thousand of those who are familiar with the appearance of a sponge could tell where it comes from, or how it is procured; certainly most of them would hesitate before venturing to name the natural kingdom to which it belongs. Nor would this hesitation be at all surprising; for, while half of the sponge-fishers who have given the subject a thought, affirm that it is a member of the animal kingdom, the other half are tenacious of their belief that it is a marine plant. Even science is in doubt, and as a safe compromise calls the sponge a "connecting link." Whatever it is, whether of the lowest order of animal, or the highest form of vegetable life, certain it is that the sponge is one of the most valuable of sea products, and is well worth more attention than it now receives.

While the sponge family is an immense one, inhabiting all tropical and temperate waters, only a few of its innumerable members have a commercial value. Such as are valuable are found in warm and shallow sea-waters on the edge of the tropics, and very nearly all the sponge used in this country comes from the Gulf of Mexico, within a few miles of the Florida coast. Here the sponge is what the oyster is to Chesapeake Bay, the salmon to Puget Sound, or the lobster to New England, and the business of sponging is so rapidly increasing in volume and importance, that it has more than quadrupled within the past five years.

The headquarters of the industry in this country is Key West, a city built on a small coral island seventy miles from the main land, and the most southerly point within the territorial limits of the United States. Here the business of sponging ranks second in importance only to that of cigar making, and provides steady employment the year through, to several thousands of the most able-bodied male inhabitants of the place. The present sponging fleet of Key West numbers three hundred and fifty vessels, of all sizes, from the well appointed 50-ton schooner, with its crew of fourteen men and towing half a dozen boats, down to the tiny sloop that affords scant room for three men and their meagre stock of provisions, but in which they will set out on a month's cruise a hundred miles or more from home with the utmost confidence in their boat and themselves.

The Key West sponger has a choice of two distinct fishing grounds—the "Bay" and the, "Reef." The former includes all the waters of the Gulf of Mexico washing the western coast of Florida, but more particularly, those lying in the vicinity of St. Marks, between Cedar Keys and Apalachicola. From this locality, near a headland known to spongers as Rock Island, come the bulk of the fine sheep's-wool, or ordinary bath-sponges. Further south, near the mouth of Tampa Bay, grow the large and highly prized Anclote grass-sponges, which are destined to undergo a curious transformation of name and character before reaching their ultimate market.

Most of the larger sponge boats go into the Bay, to reach which they must traverse several hundred miles of open sea, exposed to the fury of Gulf gales. There is however little danger to be apprehended even here; for the coming storm is always heralded by unmistakable signs, and the innumerable reefs and islands of the coast offer a wide choice of snug harbors. Besides these there are in the Gulf, miles from land, several vast springs of fresh water, that boil up from the bottom of the sea with an appearance and effect similar to that of a light oil. In these fresh water areas, seas do not break, and the great salt water combers are robbed of their terror, so that within their limits a vessel provided with good anchors and stout cables may ride out the severest gale in safety.

Such vessels of the sponging fleet as are not fitted for long sea voyages, and these number nearly three hundred, head to the eastward from Key West, and seek the somewhat inferior sponges that flourish among the countless keys of the great Florida reef. This marvelous barrier of coral forms the northern bank of that mighty ocean-river the Gulf Stream, and extends from Cape Florida on the east coast, southwesterly, for two hundred miles, to the Tortugas; while its adjacent waters offer one of the safest and most delightful cruising grounds in the world. Rising from the wellnigh fathomless depths of the Gulf Stream is the outer ledge of glistening coral, often showing above the surface and pierced by numberless deep water-channels. Inside of it flows the broad Hawk Channel, offering plenty of water for large vessels along its entire length, well buoyed and well lighted. Then come the keys fringed with the perennial green of interlacing mangroves, and ranged in a line exactly parallel to that of the outer reef. Behind them, and reached by a multiplicity of navigable channels, lies the broad expanse of shallow water known as the Bay of Florida, stretching away to the mainland, filled with low keys, sand-bars, coral-reefs, and mud-banks. These are threaded by a bewildering maze of tortuous channels, unsurveyed and unchartered, but known to, and used by the reef-sponger. In these warm shallows lie the spongebeds, and here the smaller boats of the fleet glean their harvests in safety. If the wind blows from any point of north they find a smooth lee outside the keys; if from the south, they run in behind them.

Although the sponger cares little for nature's beauties or novelties, he is constantly surrounded by such a bewildering profusion of both as would arouse the keenest enthusiasm of a naturalist. The waters abound in corals, exquisite algae, myriads of vividly colored fish, and uncouth sea-monsters. The gleaming beaches are thickly strewn with rare shells; curious birds are to be noted on every sand-bar; while the waters, themselves as transparent as crystal springs, present such an infinity of tint as to be a source of constant delight. So distinct and significant are those watercolors that navigation is largely dependent upon them, and the sponger guides the course of his little vessel with unerring precision by the hue of the proximate waters. To his experienced eye black water indicates rocks or grass lumps, while white marks shallows and a coral bottom. A tinge of red betokens a sand-bar that he may not cross; but where it merges into green or yellow is the narrow channel that a boat of light draught may thread with safety. Dark-green water is from two to four fathoms deep, while all shades of blue indicate a depth sufficient for large ships. Thus to the reef-sponger these colors with all their gradations are as pregnant with meaning as are the ripples on the surface of the Mississippi to a pilot of that tawny flood.

While the water is thus replete with curious interest, the land, as represented by the low-lying keys, is not less so. Here are birds and butterflies, insects and flowers, as yet unknown and unnamed. Here are palms found nowhere else in the world, besides groves of cocoanuts, broad fields of pineapples, and large areas of dagger-like fibre plants. Here grow nearly all the fruits known to tropic climes, while the ever present mangroves, with mastics, mahogany, and a bewildering variety of other forest trees, spring from pre-historic coral that still bears the imprint of its builders as sharply outlined as when it was created.

Of all these the sponger knows little and cares less. To be sure, the cocoanuts and pineapples arouse a slight interest on account of their money value; but potatoes or cabbages would exert the same influence. He is invariably a" Conch" or native of the Bahame, Islands, attracted to this country by its better prices for sponge, and has been familiar with similar surroundings from infancy. Thus while his eye is always turned upon the water, it is not to note with delight its rich coloring, nor the exquisite forms that inhabit its depths; but in search of certain black, shapeless objects that lie beneath it, and which represent his livelihood. Yet he passes over acres and miles of these, ranging in size from that of a cocoanut to the bigness of a hogshead, and all of a symmetrical roundness, before pausing. Apparently he is throwing away the chance of a lifetime; but if you suggest this to him he will laugh in scorn at your ignorance, and answer: "Them's honly logger'eads, vot hain't no good. Hi could load a fleet o'wessels vith them an' not go hout hof sight hof Key Vest.

A Conch is as reckless of his h's as a Cockney, and invariably supplants a w with a v, or vice versa.

The loggerhead is the most common of all sponges, and attains the greatest size; but it is of too coarse fibre to be valuable save as a fertilizer.

Arrived at what he fancies may prove a profitable ground the captain of a sponging schooner sends out a boat to investigate, meantime standing off and on until a discovery is reported. Then all hands, save only the cook, or, if she is a large vessel, the captain and cook, tumble into the small boats slid the fishing-if fishing it can be called-is begun.

The vessel has towed astern just half as many boats as she has men in her crew, and now two men are assigned to each boat. One of them stands well aft and sculls with a long oar, while the other bends low over one of the gunwales in a most constrained position, and with his head buried in a waterglass eagerly scans the bottom as he is moved slowly over it. The water-glass is simply a wooden bucket, having a glass bottom, that is held an inch or so below the ruffled surface, and in these clear waters plainly, reveals all submerged objects to a depth of forty or fifty feet. As a further aid in overcoming ripples or moderate waves each small boat is provided with a bottle of oil so hung over the bow as to slowly drip its contents into the water.

Through his magic glass the observer sees darting fish, richly tinted sea-fans and feathers, branching coral, gorgeous anemones, bristling sea-porcupines, and the myriad other curious tenants of these tropic waters. While seeing these he makes no sign until a small dark object, that, to the untrained eye, differs in no respect from the loggerheads surrounding it, comes within his range of vision. Then, without removing his gaze, he reaches for the long-handled sponge-hook or rake lying behind him, and using it with one hand, quickly tears from the bottom a black, slimy mass, that he triumphantly pronounces to be a sheep's-wool or grass sponge of the first quality.

The hook that he has just used is of iron, and has three long curved teeth attached to a slender wooden handle. This is ordinarily about thirty feet long, though the more expert spongers use handles fifty or sixty feet in length, and fish successfully in water front forty to fifty feet deep. To realize the difficulty of such a feat one has but to thrust an oar into the water and attempt to strike some object within its reach. Apparently the oar breaks at the surface, and the submerged portion darts off at a most unexpected angle. Thus the skill of the sponger lies in his ability to overcome or ignore this bewildering effect of refraction, and to detect at a glance the character of the dim object toward which he directs his hook. When the small boat is loaded, as with good luck she will be several times during the day, she returns to the schooner and transfers her slimy cargo. Heaped on deck in the heat of it tropic suit the, mucilaginous animal matter with which the sponge-cells are filled quickly decomposes and emits an odor so powerful and offensive that the presence of a sponge-boat can be detected a mile or more from the leeward, and a wise sailor will always pass one to windward if possible. To the spongers themselves this vile smell might be the spicy odors of Arab the blest for aught they care. They apparently enjoy it, and at least are so indifferent to it that I have seen them eating their dinner on deck with the rotting, sponges piled high about them, and unconcernedly devouring food taken from a temporary resting-place on the disgusting mass beside them. Nor do they hesitate, if the harvest is so bountiful as to overflow the deck, to stow a portion of the slimy cargo in the tiny cabin that contains their sleeping bunks. Here they will sleep soundly and peacefully with every aperture that might admit fresh air or mosquitoes tightly closed, and apparently suffer no ill effect from so doing. In fact a sponger seems perfectly willing and able to spend any length of time without air if by foregoing it he can also elude the insect pests with which the mangroves of the keys are infested. To prove this he not only closes his cabin and fills it with a dense cloud of tobacco smoke; but, in the insect season, he provides his bunk with a mosquito bar that is oftener made of calico than of any other material. Carefully tucking the edges of this air-tight canopy under his blanket, he will stretch himself out with a sigh of satisfaction at having thus effectually baffled his tormentors, and will spend the night in blissful unconsciousness that he is violating a single hygienic law.

One of the first duties of the sponger on reaching his fishing-ground is to construct a "crawl" (corral?) or pen about ten feet square, of wattled stakes, in shallow water, close behind some sheltering key. To this he returns, and in it deposits his catch of fresh sponges as often as it overflows the limits of his schooner's deck. In the crawl the sponges lie and rot for several days, when they are taken out and beaten with wooden "bats" until all animal matter is thoroughly extracted; then they are washed, strung in bunches on bits of rope—am having an arbitrary length of five feet four inches, and laid on sand or grass in the hot sun to bleach and dry. Finally, reduced to about one tenth of their original weight, and offering but slight resistance to almost limitless compression, they are stowed away in the hold of the schooner, which by the time its limit of capacity is reached often contains a cargo valued at several thousand dollars. Of this sum one-half goes to the vessel, which is also charged with all expenses of the trip, and the other is shared, or "sheered," according to Conch vernacular, among the crew.

As a rule the Key West sponger, white or black, and in this business the races are very evenly represented, is the most simple-minded, honest, and inoffensive of seafaring men. He seldom swears, rarely drinks, is as truthful as he is ignorant, and is above all superstitiously religious. The one form of social dissipation in which he indulges is attendance at church or other gatherings for religious exercises. His only songs are hymns, and these he renders with a heartiness that is in nowise diminished by a lack of musical knowledge or ability. He would no more think of lifting the finest sponge of the reef on a Sunday, if he should happen to discover it on that day, than be would of loading his vessel with worthless loggerheads. Nor would he fish on a Sunday, even though fish abounded and the bread locker was empty. In this connection the story is still told, with bated breath, of a hungry man who, a few years ago, caught a fish on the holy day, and was punished by a stroke of lightning on the Monday following. If there is to be preaching on any of the inhabited keys, all the spongers within a dozen miles of the place will attend it; but if nothing of this kind offers they will repair to the key beside which their crawl is located, and spend Sunday in sleeping, talking, smoking, or gathering under the shade of a clump of mangroves and singing hymns.

On one of the uninhabited keys stands a large shed-like building, erected by the builders of a lighthouse a dozen years ago for the storage of material. As there is a cistern connected with it, from which water-kegs may be filled, this key is a favorite resort for spongers on Sundays or on such days as rough water enforces idleness. As I ran in toward it one dark night last winter I was puzzled to account for a tremendous racket inside of the old building. It sounded like a riot or a free fight at least, and to satisfy my curiosity concerning it I took the skiff and rowed ashore the moment our anchor was dropped. No light was visible until I was close beside the building, when I saw that a small area of its cavernous interior was dimly illuminated by a single lantern hung just within the doorway. By this uncertain light a score of spongers, full-grown men wearing palmetto hats as broad-brimmed as a Mexican sombrero, calico shirts, and jean trousers tucked into great cowhide boots, were playing tag. It was a genuine romp, such as would have been enjoyed by any boy of ten years, and the noise they made could be heard for miles out at sea. The moment they detected my presence the game came to an abrupt ending, and they gathered breathlessly about me to inquire if I were the new preacher whom they had heard was coming up the reef. They were greatly disappointed to find that I was not a preacher, and after a half hour of conversation I fell low in their estimation by asking why they could not have a dance, as I noticed that one of them had a mouth organ and another a violin. Several at once hastened to assure me that their preacher did not allow them to dance; while the owners of the musical instruments disclaimed an ability to play an anything except hymn tunes. So I asked them to play some of those, and of the lugubrious musical performances I ever heard I think the long-drawn wailings of those two in atraments, attuned to sacred melody, was the worst. During the progress of the concert one of the tag-players took occasion to confide to me that "Hi for one don't see no great 'arm in darncing, seeing has Hi was borned an' brung hup a Puseyite; but Hi'm the onliest one 'ere has his."

It seemed absurd to see these great clumsy six-footers playing tap; but after all it was one of the most sensible things they could do. After days of being packed like sardines on their over-crowded little schooners, with the only variant of long hours of painfully cramped positions while at work in the small boats, some vigorous exercise of this kind was an absolute necessity.

Sometime, a sponge-boat is out two or three months before "filling," though occasionally the same happy result is attained in as many weeks. Whenever the joyful day arrives that not another sponge can be squeezed into hold or cabin, and when at the same time the "grub" is so low that necessity demands a return to Cayo Hueso (Key West), then is the sponger as jubilant as a school-boy homeward bound for the long vacation, or a Grand Banker whose fish-laden schooner is headed toward Gloucester. He is all spring and activity as he hoists the small boats in on deck, bangs the now idle hooks over the side in bundles that reach from stem to stern, or sends aloft every rag of light canvas that can be packed on the bending toasts, top-sails, stay-sail, flying-jib, and all. Although the car is full one, it is not heavy, and before the steady northeast trade, the evil-smelling little schooner speeds merrily down the reef past the keys, leaving the empty crawls, the shining beaches, and the envious unfortunates whose holds still show vacant room, far behind. Stretched in easy attitudes wherever they can find space for their long limbs, these homeward-bound toilers of the shallow seas sing their liveliest hymns, discuss the prospect of finding a rising market, or eagerly hail outward bound vessels with the never varying query of "Vots sponge a-fetching in Key Vest now?" For this day's dinner the cook prepares a special duff well filled with plums that have been carefully hidden away for the occasion; or perhaps the treat may be "turtle yellows"—unlaid eggs taken from the body of some turtle captured during the cruise. These, after being salted and hung for a few days in the hot sun, resemble bunches of dried grapes, big, weazened, and yellow. Raw or cooked, they are esteemed a delicacy by all Conches, although one not to the manner born would probably find snakes, snails, or train-oil equally palatable.

To the stranger the sponge market of Key West is as curious as are most of the sights in this quaint out of-the-world town. Here, where, as in Nantucket, nearly everything, including meat, vegetables fruits, clothing, jewelry, and sewing machines, is sold at auction, sponges prove no exception to the rule. The sponge auction is held every day at three o'clock on the city wharf, beyond which the fleet is anchored. This wharf is really an open area of made land reclaimed from the sea, and composed largely of sponge clippings. Here the several cargoes are displayed in piles, each of which represents a grade of sponge. With a commendable ingenuity of economy these auctions are conducted without the assistance, and consequent commissions, of an auctioneer, the bids being made on folded slips of paper and pinned to the several piles by individual buyers. Among these are representatives of all the larger wholesale drug-houses of the North, and between them until recently competition was very keen; for, although handled by drughouses, sponge is never a drug on the market. At present, however, the Key West business is very nearly controlled by one man, Mr. A. J. Arapian, a Greek, who has been in this country long enough to acquire the title of "Sponge King," and whose annual sales aggregate half a million of dollars.

While the bids are being made, each pile of sponge is surrounded by eager groups of the bronzed and brawny toilers who have torn it from the bottom of the sea. To them it represents all that is worth living for, and they will be passing rich or comparatively poor according to the price it brings. This price is regulated more by size and quality of the sponges than by the quantity offered, those of medium size commanding a better price than the very large or smaller.

Within an hour after the bids have been opened and the new ownership of the piles thus determined, they have disappeared in the various sponge-lofts of the vicinity where the commodity is in trade parlance to be "manufactured " for its final market. In the loft, each variety is first sorted into grades depending upon size, shape, quality, and the locality from which it was obtained, and to each grade is assigned a bin reaching from floor to ceiling of the spacious room. In front of these bins sit the clippers, all men and all Conches, who, with sheep-shears, trim the sponges and remove whatever coral may still cling to their roots. After being clipped, the finer grades are treated to a bleaching bath, the composition of which is a trade secret. From it they go to the drying frames, where they remain for several days, and on which they become nearly as white as the fleeces whose name they bear.

From the bleachery the sponges are borne in peculiar shaped baskets, large at the bottom and smaller at the top, made in the Bahamas from palm-leaves, to the presses, where, by means of powerful screws, they are forced into bales of the smallest possible compass. These bales, neatly enveloped in a fine bagging and tightly corded, weigh fifteen, thirty, sixty, or one hundred and twenty pounds, according to their destination, which is not always the bathroom, as many persons suppose.

Among the larger consumers of sponge are hospitals in which surgical operations are performed. This is nearly always the destination of the great Anclote grass sponges, though they do not reach it under that name. While they have the size and texture of the well-known Mediterranean ear-sponge, so called from its fancied resemblance to elephants' ears, and used, the world over, for stanching blood in large, open wounds, they have not the shape prescribed by custom. Consequently they are exported to Europe as "Anclote grass sponges" and are there out into the required shape before being sent back to this country as "Mediterranean ear-sponges." Quantities of sheeps' wool and other smaller sponges are also used for surgical purposes. Many of these after having seen service, and being discarded in the hospitals, fall into the hands of unscrupulous dealers, who wash them in an acid that not only cleanses and bleaches them, but renders them worthlessly tender. They are then hawked about the streets of large cities by curbstone peddlers, who find a sale for their fine-looking but utterly valueless wares.

Many of the larger sheeps' wool sponges find their way to currying establishments, where they play an important part in the manufacture of leather, and to stables, where, they are used for washing carriages. Coarser sponges and the small sponge clippings are worked up into a "felt" roofing paper; while the larger clippings find their way into bottles of liquid shoe-polish, to the tips of mucilage bottles, and to a score of other places where they are made equally useful. Not long ago these were thrown away but now every scrap is utilized and nothing remains in the oft but the dust of powdered lime that was once the coral to which the sponges were attached.

Thousands of bales of the finest toilet sponges, worth from ten to sixty dollars per pound, are used in potteries all over the world, for imparting that absolute smoothness of finish to delicate ware that can be attained by no other means. In most electrical machines sponge is used as an insulator. while in many other lines of manufacture its value is well established.

There are at present but four centres of sponge supply and distribution known to the commercial world, and of these the most important is Key West. In the waters tributary to this port the sheeps' wool, which outranks all others as a general-utility sponge, attains a perfection of form and texture unknown it elsewhere. Here too are to be found any number of sailors, trained to the business from boyhood, with whom to man the sponging fleet. Thus although the American sponge industry is only about sixty years old, it already leads the world in the volume of its business, the equipment of its vessels, and the intelligence with which it is conducted.

When a sponge is torn from its native bed by hooks, certain fragments or germs are left adhering to the bottom. These so speedily reproduce new sponges that the old beds may be profitably revisited at least every two years, and in some cases oftener. As an old sponger aptly expressed it to me, "they grows just like melons." Where, as in the Mediterranean, diving machines instead of hooks are used in the fisheries, there is no chance for the beds to thus recuperate, as the machines destroy the germs and leave only barren rocks behind them. For this reason diving for sponges is prohibited by law in the waters of the State of Florida.

A similar law is now in force in the Turkish and Grecian Archipelagoes, where sponge has been taken from time immemorial, and its result has been to send the European and Asiatic spongedivers far down on the African coasts in search of new fields. The headquarters of the Mediterranean operations is Calaimo in the Grecian Archipelago, which is second only to Key West in the volume of its business. The general distributing point for all European and Asiatic sponges is Trieste, whence come the delicate Turkish sponges so indispensable to my lady's toilet and invaluable to surgeons.

Sponging is also an important industry to the Bahamians, who extend their operations as far south as Turk's Island. Nassau is the receiving and distributing port for all sponges taken from this vast territory, and the Bahamian fisheries rank in importance with those conducted on the southern coast of Cuba, the central port of which is Batabano.

These are the present commercial sponging centres of the world, though a fine article of sponge is said to exist in Brazilian waters, and the Chinese supply their own limited demand from native beds. Sponge is also found on the Mexican and Central American coasts, so that there is no reason to doubt its existence in the South Pacific and other tropic waters in which it has not yet been sought.

From the foregoing statements it will be readily understood that the American sponge industry is still in its infancy. It is, however, an infant of most promising growth, destined in the near future to attain the proportions and command the attention it so well deserves Then from many a Southern port besides that of Key West will the nimble schooners sail forth with flags flying, guns firing, and crews cheering as they head toward the shallow seas and coral reefs of the distant spongebanks.

Excerpt from "Sponges and Spongers of the Florida Reef" Scribner's Magazine, V12, Issue 5, 1892.


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