Every winter “Snowbirds” from the north spend winters in Florida. According to Meriam-Webster “Snowbirding was first used to describe men who enlisted in the armed forces to get food and clothing during the winter months and then deserted as the warm spring weather approached.” In the 1920s the word described seasonal workers who migrated south for the winter. By the 1980s, snowbird became the affectionate moniker for the seasonal southern visitors we know today.
Why did this trend of vacationing south for the winter start? Same reason visitors originally came to St. Augustine, for their health. In the 1800s, about a quarter of the deaths in the United States were caused by lung diseases, including tuberculosis (known as consumption) affecting the young and old alike. Discouraged by lack of successful medical treatment, patients pined patiently for death to end their misery.
That was until doctors decided that southern climates might be more hospitable and ease the pain and suffering, maybe even clear up afflictions. This new diagnosis was not just for those with lung afflictions, but those with joint pains and arthritis, dyspepsia (or indigestion), catarrh (or congestion), and asthma. Some cities prescribed to patients included Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine.
So, St. Augustine became known for promoting good health to those wealthy enough to travel. Guide books advertised the benefits of staying in the area. Visitors wrote their own accounts describing the wonders of the city and its ability to heal the invalid. The city gave an Old-World village ambience and had become quote, “a haven for invalids from the north, the music of their hacking coughs a counterpart to the Spanish melodies which…floated ‘like incense about the housetops.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the renowned writer, spent two and a half months in St. Augustine in 1827. He was stricken with tuberculosis, which killed his father and a brother. He also suffered from problems with his joints, some days he couldn’t even walk. He finally decided to come south once the cold made pain in his chest unbearable.
Emerson mentioned in his journals that his health did in fact improve. Emerson’s biggest problem in St. Augustine was loneliness. Many invalids, however, were known to bring a friend or two, some even had an entourage and chose St. Augustine thanks to those volumes written to specifically suggest Florida as a great location for healing.
These books were allegedly written by people who visited the area and described the surroundings favorably. They romanticized the enchantment of St. Augustine and how health is a priority of Florida resorts. Moderate temperatures and invigorating sea breezes wafting with the perfumes of fruits and flowers exhilarated the senses as one recouped from any disease or ailment. In fact, many northerners found the conditions of the “Land of Flowers” so favorable they decided to make it their permanent residence.
Here’s another side of the story. People came to see St. Augustine, and died.
British artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott wasn’t in the best of health due to his energy being sapped by tuberculosis. However, he was optimistic about illness, exclaiming in a letter, “Consumption be damned! It is consumption of cigarettes and chianti that interests me.” In 1886, Caldecott and his wife came to the United States. A few weeks after coming to St. Augustine, Caldecott died at age 39. The reason for death listed is organic heart disease. He is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in St. Augustine.
That being said, other invalids who survived were not shy about their opinions regarding their stay in St. Augustine. According to a book written in 1839, the anonymous author declared that the Florida was not the best place for the ill to heal. Rather, he supported continuing even farther south outside the United States into the Caribbean, claiming that he felt best when he stayed on the island of St. Croix. In fact, this anonymous author had many opinions.
In his case, the Caribbean was the best place to heal, so why wouldn’t doctors tell their patients to go to those warmer climates? Because he felt no healthy man is a competent judge on what is best for the ill, and the invalid could not make proper investigations until they experienced it for themselves. The truth, as he saw it, money was to be made off unsuspecting invalids at these southern health resorts. Also, many afflicted patients refused to travel outside the United States, venturing as far south as Key West but no farther.
Overall, this individual’s opinion about St. Augustine did not hold up favorably. In his words: “Nothing can be worse than to find oneself imprisoned in this little village….” The truth is, it is unclear whether St. Augustine was such a terrible place at that time, as suggested by the anonymous author. Obviously, though, it is a mainstay in Florida tourism today so it can’t be that bad, right?
Written by Nicole Diehm