by Larry Roberts
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1999

Florida Souvenir China
Above: St. Augustine scenes. Left: Spanish Coat of Arms, Florida's first seal. Right: The Landing of Columbus.

Until the late 1880s, the Florida tourist trade consisted of invalids seeking favorable climes for unfavorable complaints, sportsmen seeking adventure in America’s last unspoiled wilderness and adventuresome tourists.

These first “tourists” purchased their Florida keepsakes in shops advertising “Florida curiosities” or “Florida novelties”. Here one could find everything from stuffed, walleyed alligators to assorted sea shells, basically anything of interest from the dark and mysterious Florida wilds.

Fortunately for these hapless creatures, the trend began shifting in the late 1800s with the arrival of the industrious visionary Henry Flagler. Through his improved rail service and elegant hotels, wealthy Northerners began visiting this new Riviera. With a fresh and eager clientel more interested in refined elegance than natural curios, accommodating tourist shops upgraded their merchandise to include crystal, sterling, bronze figurines and fine china.

This was the beginning of Florida’s golden age of souvenirs, roughly 1890s–1930s. Among the new stock of china appeared porcelain souvenirs, including plates and quaint novelties, such as hats, shoes and waterpails with beautiful, hand-painted images depicting local scenes, historic locations and natural settings.

The Royal Poinsetta Hotel
The Royal Poinsetta Hotel

As can be expected, many of the pieces represent scenes from the more common tourist destinations like St. Augustine, Palm Beach or Miami, since each large hotel had its’ own tourist concession. Nevertheless, smaller towns were represented by local businesses, such as variety, furniture and general merchandise stores that sold souvenir “picture” china and other Florida novelties. Some enterprising businessmen even promoted their trade with China illustrating their business.

The Greenleaf and Crosby Company of Jacksonville was the primary supplier to the larger hotels located along Flagler’s East Coast railway, having their own exclusive shops in all the major resorts. Even though they designed and manufactured much of their own souvenir line, the majority of the china was commissioned in Germany, France, Austria and England, countries with long-standing histories of ceramic excellence. Two companies from Peoria, Illinois, using the same English and European ceramic districts, became major importers by the 1900s. One was the Wheelock Pottery, c. 1900 and the other one was the John H. Roth Company, in 1909.

Souvenir of Ft. Myers, Florida
Souvenir of Ft. Myers, Florida.

Many towns and cities throughout Florida were represented by one or both of these companies, from the panhandle to the keys. Two New York companies, Rowland and Marcellus and Bawo and Dotter were English china importers who from c. 1890 to c. 1910 were noted for their deep cobalt blue plates. However, only the most heavily visited tourist destinations were represented by these two companies.

Although I have covered the primary distributors, there were others that contributed to the production of these appealing antiques. Still, the hobby of collecting early Florida souvenirs is just finding it’s course. Everyday a wonderful Florida souvenir is finding its’ way from a cluttered New England cabinet, as these delightful mementos of Florida past are rediscovered and returned to a budding Florida collection.

Beautiful handpainted scenes Beautiful handpainted scenes. From left to right: Sanford House, Sanford, Gola Park, Orlando and Watkins Block, Orlando.

About the author:
Larry Roberts, who was born in Florida, has been a collectior of Floridiana since the age of six, beginning with fossils and Florida Indian artifacts. He is the owner of Roberts Antiques in Micanopy.

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