The specific ways the luffa, loofah, or sponge gourd would have been used in 1825 Fernandina Beach would have been influenced by different factors. Be it individual lifestyles, cultural influences, and personal preferences of the time, history does give us some wonderful clues.
Luffa, loofah, or sponge gourd was likely introduced to America during the 19th century. Carbon dating proves the loofah was in North America over 9,000 years ago. It is believed to have originated in India. Johann Vesling, a renowned author, documented the species in the 1620’s having traveled to India to research the gourd and artificial irrigation channels.
When it comes to Northeast Florida, the seeds likely came from Africa to Fernandina through trade and cultural exchanges.
While the terms “loofah” and “luffa” are used interchangeably, the “loofah” often refers to the fibrous interior of the plant.
The “luffa” represents a broader group of plants. These plants produce cylindrical fruits that can grow over 11 inches long and are part of the Cucurbitaceae family. This would include cucumbers, melons, and squash.
Luffa as a Food
The young plant, “luffa” is edible, and is popular in Asian, some African, and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is softer than a cucumber, and crispier than a zucchini. As the plant ages and dries, the “loofah”, the interior of the plant, becomes blonde, dry and scratchy – suitable for bathing and cleaning. But, don’t run off to your bathroom to slice and dice your bath sponge too soon. I must let you know that no amount of steaming or boiling could make the “loofah” edible. When young, the luffa can be eaten raw, and when cooked the flavor is mild and sweet, suitable for stir fry or soups. This interesting fruit has many uses throughout history.
Loofah in the Bath
In 1825 Fernandina, the luffa, loofah, or sponge gourd would have had many uses. People living in a coastal town would have appreciated the exfoliating properties of loofah. Folks would have been caked with dirt after diving in the brush to forage for berries, or trampling through the marshes is search of oysters. After a day’s work it would have been perfect to use a loofah and remove sand, salt and grime from your skin. The loofah would also have been handy to scrub dishes, surfaces, and even clothing. The texture would have been effective in removing dirt and stains.
Bathing in the early 19th century often involved more labor-intensive processes than today. A loofah would be a valuable tool during bath time, It would provide great exfoliation to refresh and rejuvenate the skin. Christianity and cleanliness went hand in hand in past centuries. Methodist co-founder John Wesley is believed to have created the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” This widespread proverb meant the maintenance of cleanliness lead a person towards goodness and humanity.
The sponge has had many other uses, too. Many parts of the world still use the plant for medicinal purposes, extracts, and medical tools. It can be used to stuff mattresses, as insulation, hat padding, and even helmet padding for soldiers. It can be used for ornaments, decorations, and painting. During WWII, the gourd was used as a filter for diesel engines. By the end of the 1800s, medical researcher Louis Kuhne, the “Father of the friction bath” believed scrubbing was necessary for detoxification of the skin. As a bath sponge, it was written that the loofah became “in great demand” for New York’s high society. Journalist Nell Cusack predicted the loofah would be “in every wash basin in the land.” In 1902, nearly 100 years after the women in Fernandina Beach had learned of this beauty secret, a magazine published that “one could achieve that marble-like glow by sanding down the bumps.” Women would scrub their skin red in hopes of obtaining a more youthful appearance.
Other health benefits of the luffa include that it is low in calories, has moderate levels of vitamins and minerals, and is rich in antioxidants. They are folate rich, which is very beneficial for newborns in expectant mothers. This gourd has more Vitamin A than other gourds, and behaves as a anti-cancer, anti-aging factor at the cellular level in humans. It is high in Vitamin C, rich in dietary fiber, helps with digestion and bowel movements. It also relieves indigestion and constipation. Even though we weren’t around in 1825 Fernandina Beach, the luffa, loofah, or sponge gourd had quite the impact on our local history.