5 crazy moments of Miami history we found in old maps

We spent yesterday at the Miami International Map Fair, where dozens of vendors from around the world gathered with map experts and cartography enthusiasts. It was started 22 years ago by Dr. Joseph Fitzgerald and Marsha Kanner; the first fair in 1993 had just 5 exhibitors and 50 attendees. It’s one of the largest map fairs in the world (second only to London’s, Fair Manager Hilda Masip told us). We found some unexpected bits of Florida and Miami history hidden in the maps on display.


1. The Seven Years War imprisoned the guy mapping South Florida.

Chart of the Gulf of Florida and New Bahama ChannelDuring the Seven Years War, the British occupied Havana. To get it back, the Spanish ceded their colony of La Florida in the Treaty of Paris, while the French ceded everything east of the Mississippi except for New Orleans. Upon taking control in 1763, the British promptly divided the territory into “East Florida,” with St. Augustine as its capital, and “West Florida,” seated in Pensacola. Then they sent a surveyor named George Gauld to make sea charts of both.

Gauld made the above charts of the Miami and South Florida area, and got as far as the Dry Tortugas off Key West before roaming American privateers interrupted his expedition and forced him north into the Gulf, where he was captured during the Spanish victory at the Siege of Pensacola. He was held captive in Havana and New York before being returned to England, where he died soon after. It was a number of years before a detailed charting of South Florida was attempted again.


2. Jefferson Davis started Florida’s first tourism boom. Sort of.

Before he was president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War for U.S. President Franklin Pierce. While in that role he ordered this military map of Florida, with detailed terrain and resource information. He must have taken it with him to Montgomery, as he made Florida a major supplier of war resources like meat and salt. As it was cut off from other suppliers in the later years of the war, the Confederacy relied heavily on Florida’s resources for its supply chain, despite its small economy and population (just 140,000 residents). As the war ended, state leaders made a major effort to encourage tourism and new settlers. Many of Florida’s new pioneers were Union or Confederate veterans.


3. Miami really wanted friends in the 1930s.

As the automobile age gave the country new travel horizons in the 1920s and 1930s, businesses and government made a major effort to get people to visit Florida. The Miami region, still recovering from the 1926 hurricane that busted its first development boom, wanted to capitalize on its image as an exotic playground with one-of-a-kind weather. “It was the beginning of the auto age,” said Curtis Bird, whose Old Map Gallery has an impressive collection of 1930s Miami maps and advertisements. “These places you’ve always heard of are now within reach.”

The playful, whimsical art style—which still feels decidedly Miami eight decades later—developed during this period. Some examples of it, like this Greyhound map advertising Florida, contain unfortunately offensive remainders of a different time in advertising culture. Plus, a Hialeah shout-out.


4. We made tourists some questionable promises about suntanning. Miami tourism brochure, 1931

“The sun has an emanation called by scientists the ‘ultra-violet ray,'” explains a 1931 brochure advertising greater Miami, which also refers to sunlight as “Doctor Sun.” “Elaborate tests … have demonstrated these rays have a rejuvenating and curative effect on wasted tissues of the human body.”

Advertisements also claimed that ultraviolet radiation and “heliotherapy” by suntanning would benefit “colds, pneumonia, and other ailments of the respiratory tracts, high blood pressure, disorders of the heart and kidneys, diabetes, neuritis, thyroid, rickets, goiter, and all forms of rheumatism.”

It turns out, of course, that they weren’t entirely wrong. Vitamin D is associated with many of the above benefits, though new research suggests people only need 5-30 minutes of sun exposure twice a week to synthesize enough vitamin D, and this can happen at any latitude.


5. Hotel rates are up, well, a lot since 1931

At the height of tourism season in 1931, a single room in a Miami or Miami Beach hotel ranged from a low of $1 to a high of $20. Most were around $5 per night, which is about $70 in today’s dollars. While most of the hotels listed on one rate sheet we found are no longer around, the stalwart Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables has been open since 1926 and thus graciously affords us an opportunity for comparison at the upper end of the luxury spectrum.

A normal room at the Biltmore was listed between $15 and $24 in 1931. Next weekend (Feb. 13-14, 2015), an equivalent room is listed at a standard rate of $490. That’s a gross increase of about 3,200 percent. Of course, adjusted for inflation, it’s only about one-and-a-half times the 1931 rate.

To understand how that relates to people’s spending power, we can look at average household income, which was $1,970 in 1930 and $51,900 in 2013. That’s an increase of about 2,600 percent. The other hotels we looked at with available rate information showed a similar trend—Miami hotel rates have grown a bit faster than income. But given the tremendous concentration of wealth among the country’s wealthiest one percent in recent years, we suspect they aren’t having any trouble affording a night at the Biltmore.


(BONUS) Early Miami loved tropical fruit just as much as you do.

Then and now, everybody loves guayaba. We found advertisements and maps aplenty touting South Florida’s exotic edibles. Our favorite callout is for the avocado, which one Miami tourism brochure called the “aristocrat of fruits.” The distinction arises from a 1920s marketing campaign that billed pricey avocados as a luxury fruit to add to “upscale” salads, but we shall henceforth imagine all avocados wearing monocles and tipping their top hats to one another.