“Florida Water”—popular through most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth—was neither water nor a product of Florida. It had a surprising number of uses, medicinal and otherwise.
Developed in the United States, its bottles are now excavated at historic sites across that country as well as Canada (Sullivan 1994). The product was the North American equivalent of perfumed spirits that Europeans called eau-de-cologne (a.k.a. Lavender Water or toilet water). Florida is the feminine form of florido, meaning “flowery.” The liquid was actually alcohol—ethanol (i.e., drinking alcohol), typically diluted.
By the 1830s Florida Water was a generic product, so, in addition to the largest brand-name, Murray and Lanman (from 1842), many drug companies created their own version. To the traditional citrine bouquet (predominately from the orange flower) were added a great variety of scents that invariably included lavender. Recipes for Florida Water were given in The Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette of June 1889 (p. 134).
Like other toilet waters, the product had a wide range of uses: as a breath freshener, aftershave, air deodorizer, and supposed disinfectant (especially in the sick-room). It was added to bath water to invigorate the body, applied to the temples to treat “nervous headaches,” used as an antiseptic, and employed as a treatment for acne. It was even taken orally as a cordial and stimulant. According to Sullivan (1994, 79), “Scientific men” tried “to discredit colognes and toilet waters as healing substances from the middle of the 19th century.”
Pictured here is an example of the genre from the author’s collection. It is of aqua glass, blown in a two-piece mold, measuring about 23/16” diameter by 87/8” tall, and embossed “GENUINE / FLORIDA WATER / PROF. GEO. J. BYRNE / NEW YORK.” Its shape is typical of other bottles for Florida Water (Fike 2006), while those for cologne and toilet-water tended to be fancier forms (Beck 1973, 16, 35).
“Professor” Byrne was listed as a “perfumer” in New York, at 122 Liberty in 1891 and 107 Liberty in 1896. In 1891 Byrne’s product was advertised as “Prepared for H.K. & F.B. Thurber & Co., New York” (Fike 2006, 242). My bottle may be earlier.
Beck, Doreen. 1973. The Book of Bottle Collecting. London: Hamlyn Publishing Group.
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press, 242–246.
Sullivan, Catherine. 1994. Searching for Nineteenth-Century Florida Water Bottles. Historical Archaeology 28:1, 78–98.