Thursday, July 25

Jacksonville 1901 Fire Highlights Poor Mattress Material Choice, Rich History of Property Theft

spanish moss mattress material
I saw an article about the great fire of 1901 in Jacksonville, and I was surprised by two primary takeaways: the highly flammable material that caught fire was being used for mattresses and Jacksonville residents used the opportunity to steal from one another.

I am sure 1901 was well before we thought a lot about fireproofing our homes. In fact, Spanish Moss was once used for shooting fire arrows, so not the kind of material you really want surrounding you in blankets, mattress stuffing, and even insulation in your wooden home. I read that Spanish Moss was the top material used for Confederate blankets in the Civil War, mostly because of its prevalence in the South. However, the material has been banned in some places because of the fire risk, and there might even be an added risk of the moss generating methane. I haven't read whether methane may have played a role in the Jacksonville fire, but I'm not sure anyone knew to question it at the time. Anyhow, Spanish Moss should probably not be your first choice for mattresses or baby onesies, and it certainly played a role in the Jacksonville fire.

The second part of the 1901 Jax fire that was a little surprising/disappointing included stories of stolen property. I suppose there were also stories of folks helping one another, and maybe the article I read focused on some of the more sensational details, but still. 10,000 of 30,000 people lost their homes, and thousands more fled the city, Apparently, that left thousands more to do some discount shopping.

Actually, the main reason I looked for an article about the fire was because I saw a photo showing people looting Hemming Park. I didn't realize you could even loot from a park. Another family said that they tossed all their clothes in bundles out the window, only to have all the clothes stolen when they got out to the street. I can't even imagine that kind of street larceny in Duval today. But I suppose it was a fancy family.

Only a half-dozen people died in the fire, which is pretty amazing, considering it burned 146 blocks and over 2,300 buildings. The survivors escaped to other parts of the area and martial law was imposed, but I read that many people returned to emptied (looted) homes the very next day. Just imagine the constant stream of looters in boats crossing back and forth all night long.

I have to wonder what the recovery was like for people who were property-heavy as far as assets. I assume that a fire in 1901 might have gutted the wealth of those who did not have homeowners insurance (most people, I assume). Then again, people would have been mostly buying homes with cash, so it's not like they had 30 years of payments to a bank remaining. Still, there probably would have been a shift in wealth in the city. A wealthy business and homeowner who lost more than one property certainly would have felt more pain than a similar person living outside the fire's reach.

Today, we probably don't have to worry about a massive fire like the one that nearly destroyed the entire city back then, though there are other disasters that could devastate Duval. Choices like dredging the St. Johns River might even prove to be as disastrous to the city as allowing a Spanish Moss mattress plant to operate downtown. Hopefully not. I also hope wide scale looting would take a backseat to acts of kindness and generosity. That's not really too much to ask.

Thanks for reading. See more of my content:

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