The year is 1778. The colonies have just established the “Articles of Confederation,” and the United States is well on its way in developing the Constitution, establishing itself as a free nation. After Britain is defeated in North America, there are those in places like Boston, New York, and Baltimore who are in desperate need of work, especially ship crewman. As trade with England has either halted in specific industries, or even disappeared altogether, early Americans are now looking for opportunities in other parts of the world for trading and development. Seeing as the vast Atlantic ocean somewhat prevents any kind of immediate trade (you try making shipments to another nation via wind power!), American merchants and tradesmen look South towards the Caribbean, a couple weeks journey instead of a couple months. A new market emerges, and new trade routes are established which focus on products from St. Thomas, Tortola, modern day Dominican Republic and Cuba, etc…coffee, tea, sugar, spices, and many more products only grown or made in the Caribbean are brought to American harbors, and the need for new trade ships and seamen rises within the young nation. As thousands of willing and able bodied workers flock to the harbors, the industry explodes.
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Now, imagine working for a shipping company that leaves from Boston and picks up fruit and spices from Tortuga on a regular basis—you leave port on a Monday, arrive in the Caribbean a week or two later, immediately pick up the shipment, then return back to Boston, only to restart the process the next day. In any given month, you are on the open sea more than land! Sure, the ocean is romantic, as the Caribbean is a tropical paradise where the gentle wind leads your vessel through open waters, the taste of salt water sits upon the cool evening air, and dolphins follow the wake of your humble schooner (ahhhh…the epitome of romanticism!), but imagine doing this for years at a time, making very little money and dealing with the added health issues that living a life on the ocean brings. Scurvy rotted your teeth and gums, making your breath smell like death. Your clothes always reeked due to the hot days during the summer in the Virgin Islands. You never took a bath because you couldn’t fit one on the ship, and they were too expensive in port. Needless to say, you would stink BAD. Come to think of it, it’s no wonder why young sailors would begin their life on the sea and never leave—people wouldn’t want him back after they whiffed his breath! Good luck finding a wife in port when your breath would kill a sow, yet alone your haggard appearance after being on the sea for years at a time.
Yet around the turn of the century, some sailor had a brilliant idea—instead of sitting in stench, why not use bay leaves from the Caribbean islands to kill the putrid smell? Bay leaves are used for cooking, as the oils in the leaves impart a distinct flavor valued in many dishes, so why not use fresh leaves and rub the body with them? The oils would counter any offensive smells, and sailors soon found out that the leave’s oil also helped fight mouth and skin issues. Now, instead of smelling like an old gym locker room met a two-week saturated corpse (notice the theme in “rotting?”), the ship’s crew and quarters would smell like fresh cut, sweet and savory bay leaves. Like many folk remedies intended for common ailments and illnesses, pinning the exact date for the topical use of bay leaves as a deodorizer and skin healer is unknown. That being said, the actual usage of bay leaves is documented towards the end of the 1700’s, but in the beginning of the 1800’s, a drastic change takes place: blending the leaves with alcohol.
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Rum is a liquid commodity that since its initial distillation has imbedded itself within the world market. By distilling sugarcane byproduct, such as molasses or syrupy reductions, and then aging the clear liquid in oak barrels, Caribbean exporters would produce huge amounts of the sweet liquor for trade. Sailors in early America would drink this liquor throughout the voyage, as the alcohol content would prevent the drink from turning foul, something which occurred frequently with teas and even water (Fun fact: the popular beer, the “Indian Pale Ale” (IPA) was produced in similar fashion). And with the booming trade industry between America and the Caribbean, sailors found themselves completely stocked with enough rum to supply the Queen’s army. Now, after a few sailors had rubbed their body down with bay leaves as a deodorizer, however uncomfortable this might seem in a room full of young and middle aged men, yet another brilliant seamen came up with an even better idea to get rid of the “sea-stench” and have something delicious to drink—soak the bay leaves in Caribbean rum in order to extract the leaf’s oil (ever heard of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum?). This gave the sailors something to actually splash on their bodies instead of rubbing bay leaves in God forbidden places, AND drink it too! Sounds delightful, right?
Fast forward a few years—in 1838, the Danish chemist Albert H. Riise becomes interested in the “sailor’s cologne” and “drink of choice.” Riise takes this folk remedy and discovers that by mixing bay leaves and spices with the finest of Virgin Island rums, he is able to create an amazing fragrance. He continues to add cloves, citrus rinds, and cinnamon until his formula is considered “perfect.” This very formula would come to win the distinguished “Centennial Medal” in 1876 in New Orleans and Chicago. So consider this—when you are using a Bay Rum aftershave or cologne, you are not using a new product; you are actually using a formula similar, if not the same, as manly sailors and seamen in the 1800s, continuing the tradition of masculinity in fragrance. All you need now is a schooner and a hull full of raw sugar cane. But in the early 1900s, something would happen which would threaten Bay Rum from stocking American shelves: Prohibition.
Starting in the 1920s, alcohol was outlawed in the United States. Soldiers returning home from WW I found their beloved brews and distillations absent from stores and restaurants. Bars and pubs, which had opened shop decades before, were now forced to close. Distilleries and brew houses were shut down, and Bay Rum cologne and aftershave was prohibited from entering the United States. Because the formula used actual rum, the product was outlawed and unable to be produced or imported. This forced the manufacturers in the Caribbean to focus on the European market, so beginning in the early 1920s, Bay Rum could be found in nearly every barber shop in London, Paris, Glasgow, and even Berlin. This left Americans with an ultimatum—live without Bay Rum, or manufacture it without alcohol. For nearly 10 years, Bay Rum products found in America used bay leaves, cloves, citrus rinds, and cinnamon, but replaced the rum with water. It became a watery, weakend fragrant scent rather than a strong and robust aftershave. Of course the best example of American sentiment can be found in the very words of Captain Jack Sparrow himself: But why is the rum gone?!
Thankfully, Prohibition ceased and booze (legally!) filled the tavern shelves once more. With liquor importation also returned the traditional Bay Rum cologne and aftershave which New Yorkians and Bostonians loved, however in order to keep costs down, certain manufacturers continued to use the “water based” formula instead of real alcohol. This would not be an issue, except these manufacturers continued to market their product as “traditional Bay Rum,” but with no alcohol! See the issue? Many of the legitimate manufacturers of real Bay Rum began permanently closing shop due to their inability to compete with those who were making “fake Bay Rum” shortly after Prohibition ended. While there are a few manufacturers today who produce Bay Rum products, it seems no one is producing a legitimate Bay Rum like the great bottles of yesteryear—that is, except for MD Barber Supply.
We recently released our turquoise-colored “Captain Black Bay Rum”, reflective of the beautifully crystal clear waters of the Virgin Islands, which utilizes real alcohol and real fragrance derived from bay leaves, cloves, citrus rinds, and cinnamon, keeping within the strict historic tradition of the sea-faring sailors, merchants, Navy gunners, and drunken pirates of the great nautical age—although you can’t drink our Captain Black (curse regulations…). However unfortunate this may seem, here at MD Barber Supply, we decided that we would answer Jack Sparrow’s cry—where is the rum?! Well Mr. Sparrow, we have it here at the shop, and we have lots of it. Real, rich, strong and robust Bay Rum.
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