"Sponge Divers Go To War - Stopped Work to Fight" article - New York Times, May 2, 1897
Published in The New York Times, May 2, 1897
SPONGE DIVERS GO TO WAR
Greek Experts Furnish the World’s Supply of
High Grade and Expensive Goods
STOPPED WORK TO FIGHT
Florida and West Indian Sponges of Rougher Grade in Demand, Even in Europe, but Greece Takes the Palm for Shape and Texture
The war between Greece and Turkey will have marked effect on the importation of high-grade sponges. The finest in the world, particularly the costly cup sponges, come from Greece. Several hundred divers who make a living the year round at their trade have quit work and joined the army.
The cleverest sponge divers in the West Indies cannot equal the experts at Hydra, Greece. The diving bell has supplanted the individual deep-water experts to some extent, but the best specimens are found hidden away in the depths by men who cling to the old-fashioned method of diving from boats.
Stories told of feats of these divers are almost incredible. J. E. Leousi of the Lebess Sponge Company, 57 Maiden Lane, spends a great deal of his time each year in Greece, and frequently goes out with the divers employed by the firm. He told a reporter for THE NEW YORK TIMES than an expert Greek diver thought nothing of plunging to a depth of 200 feet from the side of a vessel and remaining under water two and one-half minutes before he came to the surface, with the sponge in a bag attached to his waist, and a knife in his hand.
Sometimes the men are overcome by the immense pressure of the water, and blood issues from their nose and ears. Thus, they have a cord attached to their waists before making the dive, which is held by a man in the boat. Long practice has enabled the latter to tell in a moment when anything is wrong, and he loses no time in pulling his man to the surface. Another man, stripped ready for work, is standing by to take his place.
Sponges are much like diamonds; their value depends largely on their shape and texture. The finest for bathing and toilet purposes come from Greece. A very small cup sponge costs $1.50 at retail, and they run all the way from that price to $15. Druggists who have right customers are constantly on the lookout for special orders.
The best-wearing carriage sponge comes from Florida and the West Indies. Of late years there had been a demand for them from abroad for this sort of work, as against the competition of the Mediterranean sponges. But the finder sponges, perfect in shape and texture, are not found in the waters of the Western Hemisphere. Russia, Germany, France, and England buy a great quantity of the low, rougher-grade sponges from this country. The demand is always above the supply.
In Florida and at Nassau the water is shallow enough to permit of sponge fishing with a long pole with three prongs attached. One man rows the boat, while the other leans over the bow, powerful magnifying glass in hand, his eyes fixed on the water. When he sees a sponge, down goes his pole.
In Grecian waters the bottom is too deep for this. The men there go out on sponge-fishing expeditions, as the New Bedford whalers used to do, on shares. They sometimes stop out two months.
A sponge is not an agreeable object to the sight or smell when it is first taken from the water. After a haul they are spread out on a sandy beach, in the blazing sun, to let the animal matter die out. After a day or two they are ready for “pounding” a process which means literally what the word implies. Thoroughly thrashed, they are put into a “crawl” an inclosure that floats in deep water, where the tides can wash over them. They are left there for two days more. Then they are put in strands, or strings, and taken to the vessel.
The duty on sponges imported from Greece under the McKinley tariff was 20 per cent. Under the Wilson tariff it was 10 per cent. It is proposed under the new tariff to charge and valorem duty on sponges in their crude state. As a matter of fact, sponges in their crude state are not importable, because no transportation company would take them. Importers of sponges are somewhat puzzled to know what the Dingley bill will ultimately do with them. A. Moses of the Lebess Company said that they would prefer the specific duty, “although,” he added, “it makes little difference to us how much they increase the duty or how they collect it. The people who buy sponges pay for it, ultimately.”
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