A Member of Congress represents and assists constituents. So when a Representative served a district known for one of the largest natural sponge markets in the world . . . well, that Member advocated for the absorbent product.
After working in Florida real estate, railway construction, and citrus-growing, Herbert Jackson Drane turned to politics, first at the local level, and eventually in the U.S. Congress. Drane served in the U.S. House from 1917 to 1932. His district included Tarpon Springs, a bayou-speckled city on the Gulf of Mexico, home of the famous sea sponge ground.
In most photographs, the Representative appeared serious, his mouth stern. But in a 1920 photograph taken in his office, Drane showed a hint of a paternal smile while gazing down at a large sponge. “His office walls and desk are covered with sponges of every size and variety,” the Belleville News Democrat noted, which could be useful “if official Washington ever needs a chairman for a committee on keeping ‘political slates’ clean.” The Seattle Daily Times reported that Drane boosted his home product by filling his office with specimens, “and he never loses an opportunity to tell his friends what a fine variety are produced at home.”
Tarpon Springs vaulted into commercial significance as a result of the Spanish-American War. Most U.S. spongers were based in Key West until fear of Spanish battle ships pushed the sponge fishing industry north, up the Gulf Coast to Tarpon Springs, in 1898. Initially chosen for safety, the new locale also offered a plentiful seabed of valuable sponges. By the early 1900s, the small population of Tarpon Springs increased exponentially. Most new settlers were Greek immigrants, who brought their diving skills from Mediterranean waters. By 1920, Tarpon Springs proclaimed itself to be the largest sponge market in the world.
Drane used his office to showcase sponges and spark conversations about the phylum Porifera. At the time, before they were artificially produced, scrubbers used in the bath and in painting started out as animals living on the ocean floor. At first, fishers harvested the creatures by using hooks, then by diving. They removed the sponges’ pulp and left only the skeleton, which they sold as a product. Tarpon Springs specialized in sheepwool, yellow, grass, and wire types. “Basically, sponges are useful to mankind because nothing else in nature can mop up so much liquid and release it so quickly by squeezing,” the book The Wonders of Sponges informs readers.
Drane’s service to sponges went beyond office decoration. For his unique district, Representative Drane assisted constituents by promoting their wares, protecting the industry by adjusting tariffs, and offering help to Greek-American spongers during a dispute with Key West fishermen. In 1929, the House Committee on Ways and Means considered adjusting duties on goods imported from other countries. Drane used the tariff readjustment to protect sales of scrubbers on the Tarpon Springs market from cheaper Cuban imports. He provided enough information about sponges, boats, and divers to fill 12 pages of the committee’s published hearings. Due to Drane’s efforts, the rates for imported sheepswool, yellow, grass, and velvet sponges increased significantly—from 15 percent to 25 or 30 percent.
Known as the “patron saint of the sponge fleet,” Drane also provided more direct services to his constituents. Because his district included many immigrants, his constituents called on him to assist with entry problems and local tensions. “He is constantly using his influence with immigration authorities to reunite mothers and sons, husbands and wives who have been separated for years,” the Trenton Evening Times reported in 1929.
Soon after the establishment of Tarpon Springs as a sponging ground in 1898, competition with Key West kicked up. In Key West, spongers stuck to the same shallow, overfished water and used hooks to grab and hoist the animals into their dinghies. But the Greek fishermen brought a new technique—diving—to Tarpon Springs. By using diving suits, they were able to go further out into new, deep waters and locate species with a higher street value. The ensuing decline of the Key West market led to trouble between the two populations.
In 1923, the Tampa Morning Tribune reported a war between the two sponge-fishing communities. When the Carrie S. Allen, a Tarpon Springs–based boat, docked in Key West one night, local fisherman reportedly set the vessel on fire. This followed years of Tarpon Springs boats “being either mysteriously destroyed by fire or scuttled” when they entered Key West fishing grounds. The Tarpon Springs spongers immediately turned to their Congressman. Drane requested protection for the fleet from the collector of customs at Key West, although it’s unclear whether the official stepped in.
For his devotion to his constituents and their industry, Drane received an unusual honor: District residents named a boat for their Representative. After setting off from Tarpon Springs, the sponge boat followed the Anclote River out to Rock Island in the Gulf of Mexico. Newspapers reported that “Those who sight it know at a glance that it is the Herbert J. Drane off to fill its hold with sponges.”
Sources: David J. Starkey, Poul Holm, and Michaela Barnard, Oceans Past: Management Insights from the History of Marine Animal Populations (London: Earthscan, 2008); Morris K. Jacobson and Rosemary K. Pang, Wonders of Sponges (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1976); Belleville News Democrat, March 8, 1920; Seattle Daily Times, June 2, 1921; Tampa Morning Tribune, April 27, 1923; Boston Globe, December 1, 1929; Hearing before the Committee on Ways and Means, 70th Cong., 2nd sess. (February 15, 18-19, 1929).Follow @USHouseHistory