The Early Days of Tourism
Florida is a state made up of generations of visitors. In the beginning, the state’s population was comprised of indigenous Native Americans who’d migrated into her lands, and a handful of explorers. Later, runaway slaves blended in, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, a trickle of other visitors began to arrive: those seeking cures to health issues and those seeking adventure or land to homestead.
The Roaring Twenties flooded the state with land speculators and their customers, lured by promises of reclaimed land with “the richest soil in the world”. They eventually learned that the slogan “big muck would yield big crops” was little more than optimistic speculation.
Tourism in the 1920s and 1930s
The end of the land boom in 1925 was hard enough on the population and their big dreams, but the devastating hurricane of 1926 nailed it down. Adding to the misery was a second hurricane and an outbreak of Mediterranean fruit fly, which crippled the citrus industry. By the time the Great Depression arrived in 1930, many Floridians were already completely broke.
Florida’s leaders scrambled for solutions. Thinking they had an easy fix, the State Racing Commission, created by the State Legislature in 1931, legalized and taxed gambling winnings on dog and horse racing as well as Jai Alai frontons. Unfortunately, the anticipated proceeds were much lower than expectations, hardly surprising, considering that a quarter of the state’s population was receiving federal government “Relief”, a precursor of Social Security.
Tourism, which began in the early 1900s, continued to be a more reliable source of income, at least during winter months, when northerners came seeking relief from the freezing temperatures, eager to shed heating costs.
First dubbed “snowbirds” or “snow doves” in the 1920s by African Americans describing the temporary residents who worked and/or lived in the south during the harsh winter months, the visitors were later laughingly called “tin can tourists”, referring to their cars (Model T Fords, also known as “Tin Lizzies”) and their thrifty habit of eating most of their meals out of cans of tinned food they’d brought along for the trip.
Tin Can Tourism
Whether they lived in trailers or tents, by 1919, they organized a club that eventually became known as Tin Can Tourists of the World. The parks became known as “Tin Can camps”.
A tin can soldered onto the radiator cap identified club members and secret handshakes proved it. Rules were set that club members were expected to honor: most of them stressed good manners. Unwelcome in the beginning, as the number of Tin Can tourists rose, so did supporting business and what was once viewed as aggravation was soon seen as lucrative enterprise.
By the late 1930s, the Tin Can Tourists of the World boasted 30,000 members and annual conventions were very popular. The organization’s leader, known as the Royal Can Opener, opened the first and most often only order of business: determining the date and location of the next year’s convention. The rest of the time was spent in pursuits such as horseshoe competitions and tennis matches.