"Plowing Gold from the Wasteland": Media Portrayal of South Florida's Boom, 1920-25

By Tolbert, Jane T. | Journalism History, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

"Plowing Gold from the Wasteland": Media Portrayal of South Florida's Boom, 1920-25


Tolbert, Jane T., Journalism History


During the five years of the South Florida land boom, cities grew rapidly and the population skyrocketed. This article examines the three themes used in the northern mainstream press and two Florida newspapers to portray the boom: a vision of paradise, the Everglades as a cornucopia, and easy money on the last frontier. At the same time, naturalists decried the loss of habitat and press organizations sought to establish a code of ethics to limit corporate influence on news content. The results of this study suggest that the press contributed to the land-buying frenzy with numerous promotional articles and avoided any mention of a negative impact on the environment, although that information was available, while viewing the code of ethics as a formality that had little impact on their portrayal of what was occurring in Florida.

The South Florida land boom lasted from 1920 to 1925, during which time many Americans sought to make a profit on rapid land transactions or invest in paradise. Then, the boom subsided as a result of housing shortages, shipping embargoes, defaults on loans, and banking failures. But during the boom's five years, when cities developed and the population skyrocketed, the mainstream media promoted Florida's tropical environment and mild climate as a paradise where overnight wealth could be acquired through land transactions. "[E]very jungle and swamp and palmetto hammock from Lake City to Key West is staked out in city lots," wrote the New York Times in 1925.1 This litany of success stories echoed themes of booster literature: Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth, die frontier spirit, and the viability of die boom.2 National magazines such as Time addressed die ideal climate, tropical vegetation, and balmy ocean breezes.3 Full- and half-page advertisements in the New York Times and die Washington Post,4 as well as the Florida newspapers, announced new development projects, many of which were illustrated widi drawings of Spanish villas, die conquistadors, and lush vegetation. Some advertisements carried the names of newspaper publishers who endorsed these development projects. At a time when papers increased revenues dirough the sale of advertisements for Florida properties, national media organizations worked to develop a code of ethics to curtail the corporate influence on aie press and to restore die integrity of aie journalistic profession.

The Roaring Twenties brought Americans a general prosperity and a light-hearted attitude as prohibition, boodeggers, and rumrunners seemed to co-exist5 The Progressive era of 1900-20, a time that stressed conservation,6 was followed by a decade of what environmental historian Benjamin Kline described in 1997 as administrative "indifference" to resource management "Prosperity abounded, but die price was environmental decay and die Great Depression of 1929."7 In contrast to conservationists, preservationists advocated setting aside lands to protect nature.8 Women lobbied and led campaigns for water and forest conservation;9 civic groups, such as the Federation of Women's Clubs, played critical roles in protecting flora and fauna nationwide;10 and Mary Barr Munroe founded die Audubon Society of Coconut Grove for die protection of birds of plume, such as herons and egrets, which at diat time were massacred in die name of fashion.11

In die early 1920s, natural resources appeared unlimited. In her 1995 biography of Charles Torrey Simpson, a Smithsonian Institution naturalist who took up residence in Florida, Elizabeth Rodira wrote: "No one knew that the vast sheets of warm, shallow waters flowing slowly through the Everglades alleviated cold fronts and provided a barrier against fire. Nor did ecologiste understand the role meandering rivers and overflowing marshes played in purifying water. The words 'ecology' and 'environment' were not part of the general vocabulary."12 Yet the effects of environmental degradation had been documented already in the 1920s by Simpson in his writings. …

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