The Damaging Allure of Florida
With apologies to 80% of my friends' grandparents
A quick note: thanks to everyone who’s left thoughtful comments on our last few posts. Keep ‘em coming! To keep the conversation going even more this week, I want to try something new that’ll allow us to read bits of skipped history together, kind of like a mini virtual book club. I've included more deets at the end of our post today if you’re interested!
Now to our normally scheduled programming...
Good morning, subscriber!
As always, it’s a pleasure to re-make your biweekly acquaintance. I’m hard at work putting together a three-part video series on the portrayal of Black history in textbooks, featuring the outrage we explored last time surrounding a California textbook in 1966. Today I’d like to talk about something even more elemental than history—water—in a place far nutsier than California: Florida.
You may have seen a cascade of news documenting the sunshine state’s declining water quality. Manatees, fish, dolphins, birds, and too many other species to name are suffering. According to Lizette Alvarez in the Washington Post, the “root problem of the situation” is no secret: fertilizer spilling into waterways from industrial farms and homeowners’ precious lawns.
If you ask me, another root issue remains obscured: Florida’s enduring attractiveness as a vacation and retirement paradise. Florida’s residents are the second oldest in the US (Maine is first... I guess lobster becomes even more appealing as you age), and the sunshine state also experiences huge seasonal fluctuations in population, with close to a million “snowbirds” spending a month or more on the tropical peninsula during the winter.
But as historian Jack Davis reveals in The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea...
...the idea that Florida is an accessible seasonal and end-of-life paradise was largely concocted by two brothers in the 1960s. They used a variety of deceptive, destruction-inducing tactics to sell this dream, and not by coincidence, Florida’s allure remains just as damaging today.
To see what I mean, let’s first talk about hair cream.
Born and raised in Baltimore in the 1920s, brothers Jack and Leonard Rosen were the sons of a widowed Russian Jewish immigrant who ran a small grocery. The brothers inherited her entrepreneurial spirit, working as pitchmen at carnivals before starting an anti-baldness business where they sold hair cream made from lanolin, a wool grease secreted by sheep (😋).
Innovatively, they turned to a new medium to sell it: TV. While Jack worked behind the scenes, Leonard was a natural salesman and pioneered the growing infomercial industry with famous taglines like “Let me tell you a hair-raising tale” and “Have you ever seen a bald sheep?” Personally, no, although for the record, I’ve seen the opposite:
The cheeky salesmen grew rich selling the cream, and they were just getting started. While on vacation in Miami in the 1950s, Leonard observed real estate agents sitting in offices and waiting for walk-in customers. In other words, they were making money without advertising. After Leonard reported back to Jack, the brothers bought eight acres of Florida land and tested selling it on a Baltimore TV station. The test was a resounding success, so in 1957 Jack and Leonard went back to purchase 66,000 more acres at the point below.
The brothers’ plan? To transform their giant parcel of land into a Florida version of Levittown, which they’d call Cape Coral, and to sell cookie-cutter house lots using various advertising strategies. Unlike similar suburban developments springing up throughout the country at the time, theirs was targeted not at 9-5 commuters but retirees, semi-retirees, and seasonal residents from the Northeast and Midwest. As Leonard later said, by marketing property “planned to match” the average person’s “wildest dreams,” he had “no intention of doing anything else except buying this land for a dollar and selling it for ten.”
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