Victorian Files: Murray and Lanman Florida Water

Florida Water 1904

Florida Water magazine advertisement, 1904

When you think of florida water, you probably think of beautiful beaches, warm sand between your toes, perhaps a certain Spring Break where you had a bit too much fun in the sun?  But during the nineteenth century, florida water was the ultimate high class fragrance.  While perfumes and colognes were discouraged for their overbearing scents, florida water was being applauded, and Murray & Lanman Florida Water was the undisputed leader of the industry.  Because of its immense popularity and aggressive advertising campaigns, many artifacts of this brand survive including bottles excavated from 1870s brothels, surviving trade cards, to digital records of print advertisements.

First produced in 1808, Murray & Lanman Florida Water was the premier florida water of the nineteenth century. It managed to replace homemade equivalents with a purchased version through careful and ever-evolving advertising through trade cards, bottle shape, bottle labeling, and circular print advertisements.  Murray & Lanman Florida Water was innovative for its changing message and enduring presence.  In particular, its advertisements incorporated contemporary fashions brought forth by the Centennial Exhibition in 1876.  It also tailored its message depending upon the audience, a practice that is commonplace today but was novel during the nineteenth-century.

Although perfumes and eaux de cologne or toilet waters were available for centuries previously, it was in nineteenth-century America that florida waters came into vogue.  Towards the beginning of the century, perfumed floral extracts including florida water, Hungary water, and cologne were seen as essential in a druggists’ stock.  It was used for a medley of reasons including lotion for a headache, cordial for sipping, air-freshener, breath-freshener, aftershave, and the removal of tan, freckles, and acne.  Perhaps because of its wide-ranging uses, florida water was ubiquitous in American druggist and perfumery shops by the 1830s.

Florida Water magazine advertisement, 1892. Caption reads "For the toilet, an indispensable requisite for all persons of taste, in the country, at the seaside, afloat, in the bath, in the boudoir. A pungent and refreshing Perfume, recherché in character and of general application for toilet use."

Florida Water magazine advertisement, 1892. Caption reads “For the toilet, an indispensable requisite for all persons of taste, in the country, at the seaside, afloat, in the bath, in the boudoir. A pungent and refreshing Perfume, recherché in character and of general application for toilet use.”

While these products were being sold in stores, guides also provided recipes for their home production through essential oils generally under the heading of “Cologne Water.”   Despite the name, the main ingredient, like most fragrances, is alcohol.  Alcohol combined with essential oils of bergamot, lemon, and lavender gave florida water its characteristic scent.  However, despite the production of alternative Florida waters both at home and through manufacturers of various scales, Murray & Lanman Florida Water became the undisputed leader in the florida water market by the 1870s. This preeminence had much to owe to the progressive advertising campaigns active throughout the eighteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century.

From the company’s beginning in 1808, Murray & Lanman made a wide variety of products though Murray & Lanman Florida Water was by far its most well-known and most widely advertised.  The appeal of the product was twofold.  First, it provided a cure for a medley of beauty and health issues for both men and women. Second, its scent was seen as light and pleasant enough so as not be too intrusive or overbearing. Both of these ideas are very much rooted in the concepts of beauty and decorum of the Victorian era.

A Woman’s Book published in 1894 summarizes the late nineteenth-century views on perfumes and colognes.  “Often [a woman’s taste] is not sufficiently educated to know how atrocious these concoctions really are, and she drenches herself with the alleged perfumes until she becomes offensive to all who come near her.”  This sentiment shows a clear shift from the heavy, floral scents of the eighteenth century.

Florida water was created at the beginning of the nineteenth century when most of America lived in rural towns or farms.  It was an America which was filthy with insects, dirt, and disease.  Cities were densely populated and smelled of waste from animals and humans alike.  Scholar Jack Larkin points out that the people themselves were hardly cleaner than the streets; “The furnishings and use of rooms in most American houses made more than the most elementary washing quite difficult.”  Bathing rooms, if they existed at all, held only a bath tub which would need to be filled with water hauled and heated elsewhere and then drained in the same manner.  With little chance to do more than wash hands and face, a person clean by early nineteenth-century standards would hardly be seen as such today.  By the fourth quarter of the nineteenth century, however, there was a shift to an American obsession with health and cleanliness that persisted through the twentieth century to today.  This sentiment combined with the growing attention to bodily management for both women and men led to a perfect storm for the success of a light scent thought to possibly cure ailments and increase beauty by eliminating skin blemishes.  Florida waters of all types focused on the need for present ability which had become so important for all levels of society in the Victorian era. It helped to create the national cosmetics industry which would fully emerge with the twentieth century.

Unlike perfumes, florida water was different and acceptable.  A Woman’s Book, after lambasting perfumes, continues, “Should she desire to add florida water or Farina cologne to her bath, the perfume it leaves about her person will not be sufficiently powerful to cause discomfort to any one, and she may supplement it by wearing or carrying natural flowers, whose odor rarely offends.” Murray & Lanman Florida Water takes hold of this idea in its advertisements by often referring to it as a “universal perfume for the handkerchief, toilet, and bath.” An 1892 full page magazine advertisement expounds further on the topic: “an indispensable requisite for all persons of taste, in the country, at the seaside, afloat, in the bath, in the boudoir. A pungent and refreshing Perfume, recherché in character and of general application for toilet use.” The advertisements evokes the leisure of the well-to-do of taking to the country or the seaside, an opportunity only available to those who could afford to take the time off from work to travel.  Aligning the product with the upper classes would have created appeal amongst all classes. This creative and early implementation of cross-class envy is subtle yet compelling.

Florida Water trade card, 1881

Florida Water trade card, 1881

Much like the larger world of decorative arts, Murray & Lanman Florida Water advertising was affected by the many international exhibitions which introduced the population to a dizzying array of newly invented or imporved goods.  In particular, a series of trade cards produced in 1881 incorporated the vogue for all things Japanese in the wake of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1876.  The exhibition was the first time that many Americans were introduced to Japanese culture and aesthetics.  Unlike the ornate and extravagant revival styles, the simplicity of Japanese design stood out and influenced every aspect of the arts from painting to architecture to textiles.  Advertisers too made note of the Japan mania.

An 1881 trade card produced by Lanman & Kemp for florida water illustrates their response to the craze for all things Japanese.  The color trade cards shows a Japanese woman standing next to a fountain.  Her hair is pulled up into a bun though it was likely meant to resemble a top knot more fashionable in Japan.  She holds a pink and yellow parasol over her shoulder as she holds her hand up to watch the drops of water fall.  Her long outer garment pools about her on the grass as is characteristic of Japanese clothing of the period. Though the advertisers have coopted the fad for Japanese inspired things, the trade card also points out that this is a Western interpretation.  For example, the dress, though it is meant to be a Japanese kimono, is gathered in the back like the woman is wearing a bustle underneath.  In addition, the front of the garment reveals a very structured bodice lined with a linen or lace frill—a very un-Japanese styling.  Just as the accuracy of historical revivals was not important, the accuracy of their representation of Japanese culture and dress was not the focus.  Instead, Murray & Lanman Florida Water was meant to have associations with things that are romantic in the case of the label and exotic in the case of the trade card.

Modern Florida Water bottle.

Modern Florida Water bottle.

Owned by Lanman & Kemp-Barclay & Co., Inc., Murray & Lanman Florida Water is still produced and sold today.  It was actively advertised in print as late as 1941, but today it is a novelty item sold through specialty shops and online.  It continues to appeal to a wide range of people from those searching for a classic scent to the practitioners of voodoo.  Considering the number of businesses which have begun and failed since the inception of Murray & Lanman Florida Water in 1808, advertising no doubt has much to do with its success.  Its ability to sense and respond to the ever-changing modes of fashion and influence led to its unrivaled success in the nineteenth-century fragrance industry, and their prolific advertising campaigns have left many examples over which to ponder.

About Rebecca McCormick
Rebecca H. McCormick is working on her MA in History of Decorative Arts. She is a Collector’s Series Auction cataloger at Quinn’s Auction Galleries. She has worked at the Texas Historical Commission and The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She received her BA in History and Art History from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Vienna, Virginia with her husband and their two cats.

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