In 19th century Jax, memories ranged from the usual to the unusual

After the disruption and destruction of the Civil War, the following years in Jacksonville were a time of rebuilding. The population exploded, new buildings were erected and expanded, new businesses opened and transportation from the North improved. This economic recovery was favored by the influx of tourists from the North fleeing the harsh winters.

Additionally, articles from Harper’s Weekly and other publications extolled the virtues, beauty of this exotic place and unique animals such as alligators.

Of course, the health benefits of the Sunshine State were also an extremely attractive argument. Come to Florida and be cured of consumption (also known as tuberculosis) – not to mention the various fevers, infections and illnesses that could kill. All of these elements combined in a public relations campaign that resulted in a thriving tourism industry.

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Grand hotels awaited the arrival of those wealthy visitors who had the money and time to explore and reside temporarily in our region. The most elegant was the St. James Hotel, which was the largest in the South, open to guests from December to May. A photo of the St. James was part of an advertisement in the March 1888 issue of New England Magazine with the expected marketing hyperbole used to lure tourists:

“Unsurpassed in appointment elegance, embracing a spacious dining room lit by electric lights; En-suite bedrooms with baths; Billiard room illuminated with electricity; Electric bells throughout the hotel; Steam heat; Elevator and a nice orchestra.

This image of the old St. James's Hotel appeared in an 1888 advertisement for New England Magazine, urging tourists to escape harsh winters.  Destroyed in the Great Fire of 1901, the hotel faced what is now James Weldon Johnson Park and the next building on the site is now City Hall.

This centrally located hotel on the highest ground in the area faces St. James’s Park (now James Weldon Johnson Park). What more could a tourist ask for? It was a well-known destination not only nationally but internationally. The register lists the names of many famous people who have stayed there, with a sprinkling of dukes, earls and lesser figures.

During this historic period of 1876-1886, Jacksonville was known as the “Winter City in Summerland”. It was customary for the total number of tourists per season to be printed using the registers of hotels and larger guesthouses as the basis for compilation. T. Frederick Davis wrote that for the 1882-1883 season there were 39,810 visitors while 1885-1886 had the record 65,193 tourists.

According to Davis, a typical day would start with breakfast, followed by shopping after 10 a.m. Bay Street was the center of activity where well-dressed visitors explored the various shops and curio shops. This was repeated from 3 to 5 p.m. Afterwards, the evening festivities moved to hotels with music provided by various orchestras and bands.

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Osky’s Curio Store was one of the biggest companies selling unusual trophies. They started in 1884 and were located on Bay Street until 1955. Their selection was unique and covered many types of items, often with alligator themes. Alligator teeth were used to make jewelry while canes, spoons, corkscrews, cigarette holders and ink pens were usually engraved with alligator designs.

One of the most unusual items was an alligator purse. In fact, if you visit the Merrill House Museum, you’ll find an example on the second floor.

A catalog showing the alligator claw handbags available at Osky's Curio store in the late 19th century.

An alligator purse was small and easy to carry, so women could buy one and, on their way home, impress their friends with this curiosity of an exotic animal. This practice was eclipsed later by more fanciful and elegant memorabilia, especially after 1890. Poaching of the alligator was eventually banned when the reptile was threatened with extinction.

This era of souvenirs also included the use of souvenir albums, a more typical form, which provided an accurate representation of the tourist experience. These could be shared with friends back home and, perhaps, spark interest in a journey of their own. The JHS collection has a variety of these albums which were available to the traveler. Usually with little writing, perhaps just a caption, these views typically focused more on buildings, parks, and animals than people.

These can be found in the JHS Rare Book Collection. Enjoy time travel!

Georgia Pribanic, Librarian, Jacksonville Historical Society