This year everyone may be trying to find the perfect ugly Christmas sweater, but popular winter fashions certainly change with time.
One winter about 150 years ago, instead of ugly Christmas sweaters or Santa hats, the women of Key West all wanted red shawls. At that time, one of the main businesses on the island was salvaging goods from ships that wrecked on the surrounding coral reefs. One year the wreckers brought in a shipment of red merino wool, which is a fine, light valuable type of wool originally developed for Spanish royalty. The salvaged fabric made its way into shops and quickly sold out as every women tried to purchase just enough to sew a fashionable shawl. The red shawl fashion became so popular on Key West that men began referring to clusters of women gathering to chat as “redshawling.”
One hundred years later, the Old Island Restoration Foundation adopted the red shawl as a symbol for their volunteers.
The Foundation maintains an amazing cottage that dates back to about 1830 and is said to be the oldest surviving house on the island. Since the house remained in family hands until the 1970s, much of the original furnishings are still in place, including furniture and china so it is possible to get a sense of the history of Key West and what life was like for the family 150 years ago. The house never had a bathroom. Because it is not possible to dig a fresh water well on Key West, the family’s only source of water came from rainwater collected by the gutters and funneled into a cistern located under the house. Today you can still open the trap door on the porch to check the water level.
The long-time owner of the house now located at 322 Duval Street was a merchant sea captain in the thriving port town. For much of the 19th Century, Key West was the largest city in Florida. But in the early days, large wasn’t very big, and a ship full of passengers could make a huge impact. In December of 1831, the ship Maria wrecked on a reef and while the wreckers managed to save all 230 passengers as well as the crew, they soon may have wished they hadn’t been so successful. The population of the town itself was only a handful over 500, so the shipwreck increased the population by 50%. And these particular passengers, laborers bound for work digging canals, caused so much trouble that the business of the town ground to a halt. Makeshift camps were set up for them on the beach, but after rounds of heavy drinking, the passengers started threatening their captain and then they started to take over the wharf. Eventually the townspeople called the military to their aid and after marines patrolled the streets on a regular basis, things settled down.
These days, the visitors are encouraged to drink and the population swells when cruise ships arrive in port, but the ships are required to be gone by sunset so that they don’t block the view. Though fashions and visitors may change every December, the best Christmas gift in Key West may be the same every year — beautiful sunsets enjoyed without hats, coats or mittens.
Information for this article came from the Old Island Restoration Foundation (http://oirf.org/index.php)
and from “Adjudication of Shipwrecking Claims at Key West in 1831” by Albert W. Diddle.
If you like to read about Christmas traditions in a seaside location that is not as warm and hospitable, you might enjoy my story “Change of Address”