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Sponging in the Keys

August 25th, 2015 by Piper Smith

Sponges were discovered in the Florida Keys during the 1820s. Until 1891, Key West had a virtual monopoly of the sponge business. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday is a sponge sales-day at Key West where on the new deck, bunches and cartloads of sponges are offered for sale.


There are two widely separated sponge areas: the “bay grounds,” lying in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico from about St. Johns Pass to St. Marks; and the “key grounds,” stretching along among the reefs and keys from Cape Florida to Boca Grande Key. The spongers are forbidden to use diving equipment in these waters– it is claimed that the sponge gives off seed and that if the divers go into deep water with helmets and heavy equipment they will damage the beds and kill the bearing sponge. Sponge fishermen use a 25 to 40-foot boat of shallow draught to go over the many low spots of the keys. A sponge hook is a heavy three-tined fork attached at right angles to a pole from 6 to 30 feet in length. Depending upon the depth of the water from which the sponges are taken, a wooden water-bucket with a glass bottom is used. The fisherman places this in the water, peers through, and is able to easily see the sponge he is hooking. When brought up, they are alive.  They are then laid on the deck of the boat where they are exposed to the air for three to four days to allow the sponge to die and decay. The sponges are then beaten with a club to loosen the skin and any foreign matter. After this, they are strung on a strong cord, thrown overboard, and left in the water for several days to be cleaned by tidal action. With a dull knife, remaining particles of outside skin are scraped off, and the club again beats out pieces of foreign matter and dead tissue. Water is then squeezed through the sponges a number of times and they are ready for stringing. They are then taken to the sponge deck on auction days for sale.

FL006 Florida Keys Key West Mallory Square Sponge Market sponger mannequin souvenir shops