"The word 'St Johns' on Bay Rum is like 'Sterling' on silverware. It stands for the best in the world. This superiority is due to a special quality or the leaves of the Bay trees (Pimenta Acris), which grow on the islandof St John and in no other part of the world." Encyclopedia Britannica
Bay Oil and Bay Rum
Bay rum has been an integral part of the history of the Virgin Islands and its people for centuries. According to tradition, islanders would gather leaves from the bay trees, crush them, and soak them in hot water or rum for a period of time. They would then use the fragrant lotion they had obtained to rub into their scalp, massage sore muscles or achy joints, cool down a feverish body, and relieve headaches. Although bay trees are indigenous to the area, St John proved to be an ideal place for bay trees to thrive, due to unique climatic conditions and exceptionally rich soil, and its bay leaves quickly acquired the reputation of being the best available.
In 1838 Albert Heinrich Riise, a Danish chemist who had settled in St Thomas, became interested in this local remedy and decided to conduct some experiments. He discovered that oil was an active ingredient in the bay leaves and found that by extracting the oil and mixing it with rum he obtained a product far superior to the one made by the local population. Riise refined his process, resulting in a "double-distilled" bay rum. First, the rum was distilled, then bay leaves were added, and the whole mixture was distilled a second time. This bay rum was so pure and fragrant that it was awarded the centennial medal in Philadelphia in 1876, as well as medals in New Orleans, Chicago, and Copenhagen in ensuing years.
The principal other bay rum manufacturers on St Thomas were: H. Michelsen; D. Bornn; and V.Muller.
The bay rum made on St Thomas with bay oil from St John quickly acquired the reputation of being the best in the world, prompting bay rum manufacturers to obtain their oil from St John. The main operators in the bay leaf and bay oil industry were: E.W. Marsh; G. Bornn; A. Lindquist; A. White; and the Danish Plantation Company.
In 1903, the Danish Plantation Company purchased 237 acres at Cinnamon Bay and started cultivating bay trees for the manufacture of bay oil. Their success encouraged other plantations to do the same in Carolina Estate, Maho Bay and Lameshur Bay.
In 1917, K. Zabriskie, a visiting historian, wrote, "The cultivation of the bay tree, and the extraction from its leaves provides for the island of St John its most important industry, and the distillation of this oil and its subsequent manufacture into Bay Rum furnishes the sister island of St Thomas its only article of local manufacture, and the most important of all its exports."
The production of bay rum became a major industry for the Virgin Islands, involving much of its population. Children would climb the trees, break off small twigs bearing twelve to fifteen leaves each, and throw them down to the women who would pack them into bags holding about seventy pounds. The bags were delivered to the factory where the distilling took place in copper stills. The bay oil that was obtained was not suitable for direct use as a toiletry, and was shipped to St Thomas where it was mixed with rum or alcohol from St Croix, and distilled by the manufacturers to become bay rum. Approximately 4,000 quarts of oil were produced annually, translating into an average of 36,000 gallons of bay rum.
During this time, St Thomas, because of its great deep water harbor, was a very prosperous center of commerce and a bustling port which provided the opportunity for bay rum to be shipped all over the world. Bay rum from St Thomas quickly became a favorite of South Americans as well as Americans and Europeans.
Bay Rum and Prohbition
In 1921, the provisions of National Prohibition were extended to the Virgin Islands. According to the act, local rum and bay rum could no longer be manufactured or exported. This brought production to a virtual halt. Prohibition laws were later modified to allow the export of bay rum provided its alcohol was denatured in an effort to prevent people from drinking it in lieu of rum. At first, salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin), was used as the denaturing agent. This had quite an unexpected result: Word spread that drinking bay rum not only made you feel good, but also relieved your aches and pains. This change proved a boon to the industry and, during the latter part of Prohibition, bay rum production reached a peak of over 100,000 gallons annually. A different denaturing agent was added to bay rum at the end of Prohibition, resulting in a bitter taste. This discouraged people from drinking it and bay rum returned to its original topical and cosmetic use.
World War II
At the onset of World War II, the production and export of bay rum suffered a sharp decline. Space on shipping vessels was reserved for essential supplies, especially food and medicine. Boats would no longer accept bay rum as cargo.
To remedy this situation, and to be able to resume their exports, the Paeiwonsky family, who had acquired AH Riise Enterprises in 1928 and were a manufacturer of bay rum on St Thomas, decided to buy their own boats, and operate them. The boats carried rum and bay rum to Miami and brought back merchandise, including food, which helped St Thomas escape the dreadful shortages created by the war. Thanks to this initiative, the substantial US market that had been developed could again be supplied with bay rum.
By the end of World War II bay rum exports further declined due to the competition of widely distributed inferior and synthetic products originating from other islands, and bay rum all but disappeared.
Bay Rum is Back!
During the war, John Webb of Minneapolis was stationed with the US Navy at Sub Base on St Thomas. While reading about the islands he became intrigued by the story of the bay oil and bay rum industry and decided that when the war was over he would revive it in the Virgin Islands.
In 1946, he settled on St Thomas and embarked on making his dream a reality. He started the West Indies Bay Company and produced the first bottle of St Johns Bay Rum in the same year.
John Webb tried marketing St Johns Bay Rum in his hometown of Minneapolis for the price of 79 cents. The quality of his product was superior, but its packaging, a yellow box with an island scene, unfortunately proved to have little consumer appeal. It seemed as if his dream of making bay rum into a worldwide fragrance was going to be short lived. He decided to try and design a more distinctive packaging, but all of his efforts fell short. A chance meeting one night in Frenchtown changed everything.
A Tale of Two Islands
As John Webb was watching the St Barth fishermen in Frenchtown, he noticed how attractive their fish traps looked. One evening in Café Normandie, he was introduced to Joe Felix, a native of St Barth. Felix explained that the distinctive pattern of the fish traps was called, "fish pot weave" and was made of Tyre palm fronds. The idea of palm weaving the St Johns Bay Rum bottle was born that night, and John Webb found the unique, eye catching packaging he had been searching for.
Joe Felix, though he had learned the art of palm weaving in grade school on St Barth, had never woven a bottle before and found it quite challenging. After numerous attempts he devised a method that proved to be successful. He wove a "jacket" out of palm strips which he slipped over the bottle like a glove. He then finished the weaving by delicately tying the palm around the neck of the bottle. The whole process took between 20 to 30 minutes. John Webb was elated with the result of Felix's efforts and the beautiful packaging he had created.
Joe Felix returned to St Barth and proceeded to teach others how to palm weave bottles. Within a short period of time he had to purchase a truck to deliver bottles to the growing number of weavers he employed. At that time life on St Barth was very difficult, and this newly created industry soon became a main source of income for the islanders.
The combination of St Johns Bay Rum's great fragrance and its beautiful packaging was a recipe for success. St Johns Bay Rum became widely known.
As the demand for bay rum increased, the corps of weavers in St Barth grew to more than 200 families, creating a huge local industry that turned out ten of thousands of woven bottles annually. The empty woven bottles were shipped or flown to the St Thomas factory where they were filled.
Though the bulk of the weaving was done on St Barth, there were also weavers on St Thomas and Tortola. Many families such as the Fretts and the Lettsomes, remember their grandparents, parents, and often themselves as children weaving bay rum bottles.
The St Barth "weaving connection" continued until 1995, when Hurricane Luis destroyed most of the Tyre palms on St Barth.
In the late fifties John Webb added two new fragrances to his line: West Indian Lime for men, and a companion women's fragrance, Lime and Floral. The crisp, refreshing scent of lime, and the combination of lime and tropical flowers proved to be an instant success. The factory, which was located near the airport, expanded from one room to a two-story building, but the filling of the bottles continued being done by hand.
Inspired by the success of St Johns Bay Rum, a local company decided to copy their packaging and launch their own line. John Webb, however, had taken the precaution to trademark the palm weaving. This proved to have been a very wise decision on his part. Webb brought a lawsuit against the company and the case was tried in Federal Court in Chicago. St Johns Bay Rum won the case and the judge ordered the rival company to cease manufacturing and to destroy all finished goods and supplies.
The US Expansion
In 1957, John Webb hired Myron Mc Intyre, who operated a sales agency on Madison Avenue in New York City, to represent St Johns Bay Rum in the United States. Bay rum fitted in perfectly with the fine British lines of cashmere sweaters, and accessories that Mc Intyre carried and placed in the finest men stores and department stores around the country. St Johns Bay Rum could soon be found in America's leading stores such as Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Between 1957 and 1963, a series of outstanding ads were placed in the New Yorker magazine. As a result, the distribution of St Johns Bay Rum grew considerably and in the early sixties bay rum was shipped to every major city and most college towns in the United States from distribution warehouses located in Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Minneapolis.
The Warner Lambert Years
By 1963 the pharmaceutical giant Warner Lambert took notice of the notable success of St Johns Bay Rum. In an effort to upgrade their fragrance division they decided to acquire the West Indies Bay Company, producer of St Johns Bay Rum.
With a worldwide market in mind, Warner Lambert proceeded to register the various St Johns' trademarks in many countries around the world, and to expand the line. They developed skin moisturizers, talc, soaps, deodorants, and hair grooming products both in the Bay Rum and West Indian Lime fragrances, and a suntan product made with bay rum which they named Filter Tan. They also added two new fragrances to the St Johns family: Cutlass and Indian Gold. All products were presented in the distinctive and unique palm woven packaging. They offered gift sets, gift hampers, and possibly the most eye catching item in their line, a beautiful palm woven Captain's decanter filled with aged Lime Cologne. In an effort to improve their manufacturing capabilities, Warner Lambert took steps to upgrade their facilities. They installed a number of stainless steel vats, a semi-automatic filling machine, a bottle capping machine and a water purifying system.
In keeping with their expansion plans they embarked on a vast distribution program to the military and shipped to bases and ships around the globe, gaining a great number of new customers who became bay rum converts.
By the late sixties, Warner Lambert decided to eliminate their fragrance division. They planned to close the factory in St Thomas, put Bay Rum in their pharmaceutical division, and move the production to Texas. It turned out that this plan could not be carried out. After conducting some trials they found out that the water in Texas was affecting the fragrance, and despite their efforts they could not obtain the same bay rum scent as the one produced in St Thomas. Consequently, they were forced to abandon their idea of moving the factory. By that time, the company had lost interest in the only fragrance brand they had left and bay rum became an orphan. Sales declined sharply and, by the early seventies, St Johns Bay Rum had all but disappeared in the US and was left with limited distribution in St Thomas in stores such as Sparky's and Tropicana.
The Revival Years
In 1978, Jerry Woodhouse bought the West Indies Company from Warner Lambert. As a retailer he was familiar with St Johns Bay Rum, a fragrance he had carried for many years in his men stores in the United States. He had been saddened by the disappearance of the fine fragrance and wanted to bring it back.
He concentrated his first efforts on increasing the sales locally, and opened a great number of new accounts on St Thomas, St John, and St Croix. He then directed his efforts towards the US market by hiring a sales force led by John Mendez in New York City. Mendez, who represented a number of British clothing lines, reintroduced St Johns Bay Rum to the finest men stores coast to coast. Thanks to his efforts, St Johns fragrances could again be found in some of the best known stores such as Nordstrom, Bloomingdales in New York, Sakowitz and Neiman Marcus in Dallas, I. Magnin in San Francisco, and Brooks Brothers to name a few.
In the eighties, Jerry Woodhouse moved the factory to Havensight and introduced two new scents: "Island Spice" for men and "J'ouvert" for women. These newcomers brought the number of fragrances offered by St Johns to seven.
Woodhouse opened new markets throughout the Caribbean, Hawaii and Bermuda, where tourists embraced St Johns as the perfect gift and souvenir to bring back from the islands. Even Hollywood took notice: Palm woven bottles of bay rum have been featured on episodes of the hit TV show M*A*S*H, in the movie "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," and most recently in the film "The People I Know," with Al Pacino.
In the early nineties West Indies Bay Co. introduced a line of suntan products called "Virgin Islands," developed by a expert in the field of sun care and consultant to the biggest names in the industry. The line included lotions, oils, and aloe products, and was formulated especially for the powerful Caribbean sun.
Hurricanes Hugo in 1989, and especially Marilyn in 1995, dealt a severe blow to the Virgin Islands and to the West Indies Bay Company. In 1995, Marilyn destroyed the factory which occupied the old Vitelco building in Havensight. The dedicated employees rallied to salvage what could be recovered from the wreckage and discovered that although the heavy equipment weathered the storm, most of the supplies and inventory were destroyed. Thanks to the tireless efforts of staff, the West Indies Bay Company was able to resume shipping to its US customers within two weeks.
Sadly, the situation elsewhere in the Caribbean was quite different. The market was devastated, and St Johns Bay Rum lost two-thirds of its accounts as many of the destroyed stores never reopened.
The recent years
In 1997, St Johns Bay Rum relocated to its present location on the West Indian Company dock. The facility comprises an office, a warehouse, a showroom, and manufacturing space.
Many cruise ship passengers wander in to investigate the source of the wonderful smell that escapes from the building. For some of them it is their first encounter with bay rum, for others it is the thrill of discovering the place where their favorite fragrance is made.
In early 2000, Jerry Woodhouse reintroduced gift baskets and soaps, and expanded the collection to include Bay Rum and West Indian Lime balms.
The explosion of a new sales medium, the Internet, resulted in a tremendous increase in new customers who discovered St Johns Bay Rum through its beautiful website: stjohnsbayrum.com.
Fragrances ordered on the Internet site are regularly being shipped to Canada, Europe, China, Taiwan, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and South America, carrying with them a little of the magic of our islands.
To celebrate St Johns Bay Rum's 60th Anniversary, a very unique bottle of Bay Rum was produced in 2006. It featured a beautiful label picturing a weaver by the sea. This limited edition bottle was offered throughout the year in stores and on the Company's website.
St Johns in the 21st century
In the factory store, St. Johns Fragrances are prominently displayed along with a new line of fragrances for men and women called "West Indies".
The striking West Indies Logo was created by a well known Italian designer who drew his inspiration from St. Johns' distinctive palm weaving.
Thru this newly created sister brand the Company is expanding into a West Indies line of sportswear for men and women in bright tropical colours, and fabrics that reflect the islands' lifestyle. The clothes are presently being sold only in the St. Johns Bay Rum store.