Fashion Designer Wayne James Directing Film on Golden-Age Cuba
Georgetown University law graduate and former United States Virgin Islands senator Wayne James seems to do it all—from fashion to furniture to food to federal prison. And now the über-talented, ever-resilient author of the critically acclaimed Manly Manners can add yet another “F-word” to his credentials: filmmaker.
Going…Going…Gone: The Grandeur of Golden-Age Cuba is a 90-minte docufilm featuring more than 450 photographs of Cuba during its heyday between 1890 and 1925. The film will premiere in Miami on March 26, 2022, at the Miami Hispanic Cultural Arts Center.
But in many ways, Going…Going…Gone has been coming along for almost a century. In 1918, at age 29, James’ maternal great-uncle Alexander Messer, born on St. Croix in 1888, migrated to Cuba to work as a sugarcane laborer and musician. And while living in Santiago de Cuba, the island-nation’s second-largest city after Havana, Messer would occasionally enclose with his letters to his parents and siblings tobacco cards issued by Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., manufacturers of fine cigars. The cards featured beautiful images of Cuba: churches and cathedrals, municipal building, private mansions, parks, bridges, monuments, casinos, theaters, bays and beaches, plantations, factories, etc.
“This was before the proliferation of the instamatic camera,” James said. “For Uncle Alex, sending picture-cards of Cuba was the best way he knew how to share his adopted homeland with his beloved family.”
Messer’s cards, totaling about 100, remained in the Prince-Messer family’s ancestral home in the town of Frederiksted, St. Croix, until 1973 when Alexander’s younger brother, Alphonso Messer, died, the seminal collection passing to James, who would turn 12 years old in September of that year.
“I was always intrigued by the photos, especially since Cuba had become a ‘forbidden land’ by the time I became conscious of the greater-world,” James said. “Those cards were always very sentimentally precious to me because they connected me to my great-uncles Alex and Richard, both of whom migrated to Cuba, never to return to St. Croix.”
In the late summer of 2005, while visiting a friend in Barcelona and partying on the enchanted isle of Ibiza, James came upon a cache of about 250 of the cards in an antique shop in old Barcelona, not far from the Pablo Picasso Museum, and quickly purchased them. Then in 2009, while visiting Cuba in his capacity of Senator of the United States Virgin Islands, James donated copies of his collection to the University of Havana, which, at the time, had no archival record of the existence of the photos.
“That’s when I realized how rare the photos were,” James said. “I figured that if the University of Havana had never heard of a series of tobacco cards featuring Cuba in its glory days, I was onto something. And I knew that the photographs had to be officially shared with the people of the world. Also invaluable about the cards is that each photo was produced with an identifying caption, making it easy to recognize the structures, sites, and scenes even if no longer extant.”
In September of 2020, James’ collection again grew fortuitously when he noticed 150 of the photos up for bid in a Spanish auction house. He won the bid, bringing his collection to approximately 450 distinct images, the collection now believed to be the world’s largest. The esteemed Cuban Heritage Institute of the University of Miami, for example, one of the foremost repositories of Cuban scholarly material, only has 60 of the images.
Beginning in the 1870s and continuing until the 1920s, tobacco companies routinely inserted cardstock in order to stiffen the packaging of cigars and cigarettes. The cards also doubled as advertising, typically featuring the world’s royalty, famous athletes, celebrated beauties, and general-interest subjects such as exotic animals, churches, or circus characters, for example. Today, some of those cards have become very rare and very valuable.
“Very few of the ‘Cuba Series’ tobacco cards have survived the ravages of time,” James said. “And little about them is known or documented, even by the great cartophilic publications and societies of the world. And unlike many tobacco card series, which were typically issued in sets of 25 or 50, the Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd., “Cuba Series” contained hundreds of cards, leading me to believe that the cards were never inserted into tobacco packaging but were, instead, presented as giftsets to preferred clients. How Uncle Alex came in possession of the cards has been lost to history. He was not a known smoker, and it is unlikely that he was a preferred client of Henry Clay and Bock & Co., Ltd. In any event, the cards are today exceedingly rare, making it all the more imperative that they be shared with the world. Much of the Cuba depicted in the cards no longer exists or exists in a state of relative decline.
“I was inspired to put the collection on public display by my dear, dear friend, Luis C. Garcia-Menocal, great-grandson of Mario Garcia-Menocal, Cuba’s third president [1913-1921]. I was profoundly affected by Luis’ longing for his beloved homeland, Cuba, and knew that the sentiment was not unique to him. Cuban people need to see this film,” James said. “Perhaps this docufilm will inspire Cubans in Cuba and those that comprise the diaspora to preserve one of the most precious jewels of the New World.”
Going…Going…Gone masterfully combines the breathtakingly beautiful black-and-white photos of James’ collection with archival film footage, contemporary photos, and television broadcasts that delve into the political landscape that is Cuba. Primarily a visual experience enhanced by the music of Latin American composers such as Cuba’s Ernesto Lecuona and Argentina’s Astor Piazzolla performed by PASO (Pan American Symphony Orchestra) of Washington, DC, the film looks like an exhibition and sounds like a concert.
“The Miami premiere of the Going…Going…Gone will be buttressed by an eponymously titled exhibition and book,” James said. “And, of course, the film will be made simultaneously available at no charge online so that people all over the world—especially those in Cuba—can share in the experience. This project has been a labor of love on many levels. I am thrilled to see it bear fruit,” James concluded.
Fashion designer, former senator, men’s lifestyle influencer, and Manly Manners author Wayne James has unveil his new line of herb-and-spice blends and dry-rubs specifically formulated for the 21st-century man. Called Wayne James’ Seasonings for Men, the line features five all-natural, no-preservatives, kosher-certified blends: all-purpose, salt-free, seafood, vegetarian, and game/holiday.
“My aim was to introduce a line of ‘quick-fix’ seasoning-blends that enables the novice as well as the expert to prepare gourmet-flavored meals in a matter of minutes,” James said. “The modern man is flavor-conscious, but he is also very busy. He therefore needs a product that gives him quick, easy, but excellent results. Today’s man wants a seasoning that allows him to effortlessly expand beyond the backyard grill. And if adding some sex appeal to each meal is part of the deal, then so much the better.”
Blended and bottled in Maryland, spice capital of the United States, James’ packaging is decidedly and distinguishingly masculine: glossy black caps; minimalistic black labels with gold lettering; detailed ingredients and nutritional listings. “The packaging nods at quintessentially male products such as distilled spirits, shaving creams, cigars, and condoms. I want men to instinctively reach for the bottles, whether on a supermarket shelf or in a kitchen cabinet. The packaging looks manly—as if to say, ‘I am more potent than other seasonings,’ ” James said.
But James’ line of seasonings is not off-limits to female customers. “I definitely see women purchasing the seasonings for the men in their lives—as gifts or to encourage them to demonstrate their masculine prowess in the kitchen. I also envision women purchasing the products for themselves, perhaps out of curiosity at first, then because of the seasonings’ distinctive flavor-profiles.
All five blends are based on recipes that have been in James’ family since the mid-1700s and feature 18 to 29 ingredients. And the designer, a gourmand in his own right, is no stranger to the food industry: In 1993, rather than launching a fragrance like most other fashion designers, James introduced the Carnival Seasonings line which sold in outlets such as Fresh Fields (now Whole Foods), Dean and Deluca, and in military commissaries.
“Our business model has now shifted to online marketing to meet the demands of the modern customer,” James said. “Wayne James’ Seasonings for Men will be available in a few key stores around the world; but for the most part, customers will have to purchase the product online on Amazon, eBay, and http://www.waynejamesltd.com ”
For the more than two thousand years that the genteel team-sport of polo appears in the historical record, various garments have been worn by its players. In the late 19th century, for example, some British players would wear long-sleeved, turn-down-collar, oxford cloth shirts. But apparently the collars of those shirts would flap up into the faces of the athletes during the fast-paced game; so, eventually, the players started securing their collar-ears to their shirts by way of buttons.
Then in 1896 American John E. Brooks, grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers, took the idea of the button-down collar back across “the pond” to America and started selling them at the store as “polo shirts.” The shirts quickly became, and remain to this day, one of the cornerstones of the establishment. Today, button-down-collar oxford cloth shirts are still called “polo shirts,” even though they have long been retired from the polo fields and are instead being worn primarily by businessmen and academics.
But for the most part, when a modern gentleman refers to a “polo shirt,” he is referring to the equally ubiquitous short-sleeved, cotton-knit (traditionally a piqué knit) shirt with a two- or three-button placket, a ribbed collar and sleeve band, and an extended tail (to keep the shirt tucked in while engaged in active sport). This modern polo shirt was introduced to the tennis—not polo—world at the 1926 US Open tennis tournament by Jean René Lacoste (1904-1996). Lacoste walked onto the court at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York in his new, short-sleeved shirt; shocked both the sports and fashion worlds; then five days later walked off the court with the championship trophy in his hands and what would become a fashion icon on his back. In an era where fashion ruled over function, Lacoste’s insistence upon comfort and practicality over form and tradition resonated with athletes in other sports—especially the sport of polo—which quickly abandoned its long-sleeved shirts with stiff, starched collars for the short-sleeved “tennis shirt,” so much so that the shirt would come to be called the “polo shirt” instead of the “tennis shirt.”
In 1933 Lacoste collaborated with his friend André Gillier, owner of a large French knitwear company of the day, to establish La Societe Chemise Lacoste (The Lacoste Shirt Company). Evidenced in its first catalog (1933), the firm produced the shirt design that Lacoste had first sported on the tennis court in 1926, as well as other shirts for sports such as sailing and golf, embroidering the company’s logo, a crocodile, onto each garment—thereby becoming the first company in recorded history to affix its logo on the outside of its garments. Then in 1951, the company decided to broaden its palette beyond classic tennis whites, adding a variety of colors. In 1967, American fashion designer Ralph Lauren established his fashion empire, “Polo Ralph Lauren”; and at its cornerstone were classic polo shirts—both the Brooks Brothers button-down-collar and the Lacoste knitwear varieties.
A Leather Scarf by Designer Wayne James: Fashion’s Newest Invention
In the uber-creative world of fashion, where artsy types with their quirky ideas abound, St. Croix-born fashion designer Wayne James has done the next-to-impossible: invent something truly new. And James’ invention is…: The leather scarf.
The “buttery-soft” accessory drapes and folds like silk. It measures 18” wide and 72” long and is made from one, continuous, seamless cut of super-thin top-grain cowhide. Unveiled in June of 2021, James’ leather scarf has already begun turning heads—and necks—in the world of fashion. It is available exclusively at the designer’s recently launched online Concepts Store, www.waynejamesltd.com and comes in two earthy color options, a rich “cognac” and subtle “natural.” The heirloom-quality scarf, which is guaranteed to last a lifetime—and then some—is priced at $860. A 20% discount is offered to qualified shoppers.
Leather has been used, from time immemorial, to clad the human body from head to toe: hats, jackets, belts, trousers, footwear. But for some reason, designers have never thought of or figured out a way to create the leather scarf—despite its obvious capacity for providing warmth and protection from the wintery element. In 2021, however, when James sourced an exquisite imported leather that flows like fabric, he jumped at the opportunity to execute an idea that had been on his drawing board for over 20 years, patiently awaiting the right leather.
“Anyone could have thought of a leather scarf. But no one else did. And that’s what makes this all so exciting and all so special. It is nice to be distinguished for creating something unique in an industry filled with creative geniuses,” James said.
Throughout fashion history, there have been only a few such “firsts” that could be definitively attributed to a particular designer. The today-ubiquitous zipper was invented by Elias Howe in 1851; improved by Whitcomb L. Judson 40 years later in 1893; and transformed by Gideon Sundback in 1913 into the Y-shaped implement that characterizes zippers today. But it was not until 1923 that American industrialist B. F. Goodrich coined the onomatopoeic word, “zipper,” to describe the invention. The 1920s’ concept of the bias-cut garment belongs to Madelaine Vionnet (1857-1956), and Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) is credited with the concept of “the little black dress.” In 1896, American John E. Brooks, grandson of the founder of Brooks Brothers (1818), noticed that British polo players would use buttons to hold in place the collars of the long-sleeve Oxford cloth shirts in which the fast-paced sport was played. And returning “across pond” to America, he began producing Oxford cloth shirts with buttoned-down collars and called them “polo shirts.” Jean René Lacoste (1904-1996) debuted the other type of polo shirt—the short-sleeve, cotton piqué, knit ones—at the 1926 U.S. Open tennis tournament, causing a stir and establishing himself as a fashion icon.The miniskirt is generally regarded as the invention of British designer Mary Quant (1930-present), the animal skins worn by mankind’s cave-dwelling ancestors notwithstanding.
“The common thread of fashion’s greatest inventions is that they all should have been obvious to one’s designer-peers but for some strange reason were not. Call it luck, serendipity, genius, who knows,” James said. “This leather scarf is one such creation. Scarves of all types and fabrics have been around forever—from Hermés’ iconic silk ones, to J.Crew’s 2020 cashmere ones, to grandma’s handknit Christmas gift ones. Now, there is the Wayne James leather scarf. And I think it is going to eventually take its place amongst the great inventions of fashion,” James concluded.
A Leather Scarf: Fashion Designer Wayne James’ Newest Invention
Fashion designer Wayne James has launched his much-anticipated online Concepts Store, www.WayneJamesLtd.com. And the inaugural Concept is an extraordinary, exquisite, leather scarf made of an ultra-thin, über-supple, top-grain cowhide. Available in two earthy colors, cognac and natural, the “buttery-soft” scarf measures 18” wide and 72” long and is handmade in the USA of one, continuous, seamless cut of luxurious imported leather. The Wayne James insignia—an interlocking WJ established in 1986—is discreetly debossed into one corner of the scarf, imparting the designer’s stamp of approval and mark of authenticity.
“A leather scarf is unique, even in the creative world of fashion,” James said. “There is nothing like it out there. And there has never been anything like it. It is truly a new concept, and I am happy to introduce it to the world.
“The purpose of the Concepts Store is to debut cutting-edge products—things that even “fashionistas” and “style-influencers” have never heard of, seen, or dreamt of before,” James said.
The idea of a leather scarf was literally and figuratively on the company’s drawing board for 20 years—waiting patiently until James could source a super-soft cowhide that was wide enough and long enough to craft the scarf from a single cut of leather. Then, in 2021—just in the nick of time for the Fall/Winter 2022 Collection—James identified such a leather, a sanded, lightly buffed, top-grain hide cut to .78mm to 1.19mm (1/32” to 3/64”) thin. One of the cornerstones of the collection, the leather scarf is being unveiled as the online Concepts Store’s inaugural Concept.
“This leather scarf is the type of accessory that punctuates a wardrobe,” James said. “It is to a wardrobe what an exclamation mark is to a sentence, period. Whether paired with a wool crewneck sweater or Scottish tweed sport coat in the fall, or a suede or cashmere coat in the winter, the scarf makes a fashion statement: that the wearer has a lot of confidence and personal style.
“And what’s great, too, is that the scarf mellows as it is worn and ages, draping around the neck like a second skin,” James said. “This is an investment piece: It is classic and is therefore timeless. It’s the type of fashion accessory that becomes storied, that is passed from one generation to the next,” James concluded.
The leather scarf is available exclusively at www.waynejamesltd.com and is priced at $860 (less any applicable discounts).
Fashion Designer Wayne James Launches Online Luxury Concepts Store
Fashion designer Wayne James has launched his online Concepts Store, www.waynejamesltd.com, in celebration of the company’s 35th anniversary. The online store will present James’ most cutting-edge design concepts, one concept at a time—from a silk-soft leather scarf, to a five-blend line of dry-rub seasonings formulated for male cooks, to a collection of belts with 18K gold buckles—each concept featured for three consecutive months before moving to the “Reserve Collection,” thereby making room for a new concept to be featured. Only four concepts will be featured per year. And most of the products in the collection are made in the United States whenever possible: an exquisite men’s robe made of imported Irish linen is made in New York City; a timeless white linen shirt made of the same Belgian linen used to make papal vestments is manufactured in Boston; and luxurious seven-fold ties made of Italian and English silks are hand-sewn in North Carolina.
“The aim of my Concepts Store is to simplify the online shopping experience,” James said. “The internet is great; but it can also inundate.” The unique format of the store—believed to be the only of its kind—allows consumers to focus on the one item that is being featured.
“Shopping at WayneJamesLtd.com is easy and elegant,” James said. “And unlike other online vendors who simply pack their customers’ purchases into mailing-boxes and ship them off, no frills added, my online store keeps the experience upscale from start to finish. Purchases are packaged in company gift boxes with company-colors tissue paper—just like the great department stores of yesteryear—before being placed into mailing-boxes for shipment. That way, each purchase arrives at your door as a ready-to-be-presented gift,” James added.
St. Croix-born James established his fashion company in 1986 at the age of 24 and presented his first collection in New York’s artsy SoHo district two months before graduating from prestigious Georgetown Law in 1987. And within a mere two years, in 1989, James was being touted as one of the rising stars amongst young New York designers by the Washington Post and United Press International (UPI).
“I showed my very first collection at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery on Spring Street in SoHo in March of 1987, sold the collection to Bergdorf Goodman in April, and my garments were being worn on New York’s famed 5th Avenue by July of that year,” James recalls. “I was busy shipping my first collection of Ecuadorian hand-knitted sweater-dresses while my law school classmates were studying for the bar exam.”
Within the first decade, James’ collections had been lauded by fashion’s most venerated arbiters: Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), New York Times, Washington Post, Elle, GQ, Ebony, Essence, USA Today, UPI, Daily News Record (DNR), etc. And his garments were being sold by fashion’s best—from Nordstrom’s to Bergdorf’s to Saks Jandel to Victoire’s in Paris, France.
“But fashion has evolved since the 1980s,” James said. “E-commerce has not only made brick-and-mortar merchandising almost irrelevant, it has also made the entire world your marketplace: With a quick Google, Bing, or Yahoo search, a customer in Otavalo or Montescudaio can purchase one of my luxury products and have it delivered by courier across the globe. I saw it coming—from way back in the late 1990s. And that’s when I started designing this online collection—way back then—patiently waiting until now that the average person is comfortable with online shopping. The designs in this online collection have been tested and re-tested to perfection. I’ve been working on this for 20 years, and it’s now time for the roll-out of all these great products. It’s exciting. It’s exhilarating. I have decades’ worth of luxury products in the roll-out queue, all ready to be featured in the Concepts Store at the appointed time.
And James, who will turn 60 later this year, is once again looking to the future. “I have recently begun laying the foundations for bringing new, fresh talent into the fold of the company—design graduates from schools such as New York’s FIT, RISD in Rhode Island, and the Savannah School of Design. The objective is to have the Wayne James label endure long into the future—as a label that is synonymous with timeless innovation,” James concluded.
West Indian Whelks–The World’s Most Delicious Aphrodisiac
West Indies Whelks, Cittarium pica of the family Tegulidae (also known as “magpie shell” or “West Indian top shell”)
The cuisine of St. Croix, thanks to the internet—with YouTube cooking programs, “foodie” blogposts, and website articles—is finally taking its rightful place amongst the great culinary traditions of the world. And one of the most esteemed dishes in the pantheon of Crucian recipes is “whelks in butter-sauce.” Not only is the whelk locally regarded as one of the most delicious fruits of the sea, it is also considered by many Afro-Caribbean men to be an aphrodisiac, capable of palatably endowing a man with the characteristic firmness of mollusk itself.
Even the harvesting of the whelk along the island’s shoreline during low tide is steeped in age-old beliefs: that whelks, upon hearing the human voice, will release themselves from the shoreline rocks into the safety of the depths of the sea and therefore should be harvested in silence; and that whelks detect the scent of humans and should therefore be “picked” against the wind so as to avoid detection. Whelks are so much a part of Crucian culture that they have even provided a local name for official fashion terminology: What the rest of the world calls “cropped pants” or “pedal-pushers” or “Capri pants” are locally referred to—even if unflatteringly so—as “picking-whelks” pants.
Spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) is today considered a delicacy; but a century ago, in the Caribbean, it was so commonplace that it was used as bait. And queen conch (Eustrombos gigas) has been regarded as a seafood staple for centuries. Not so, however, with whelks:
From time immemorial, this sea snail has been regarded as a delicacy on account of its compelling flavor, so much so that prior to preservation laws, it was harvested from coastline rocks to the point of extinction in several island-habitats.
That whelks are highly coveted by Crucians is perhaps best illustrated in the following article which appeared in the St. Croix Avis in the immediate aftermath of the 1878 Fireburn, where a laborer invokes the “picking whelks” defense to explain away his presence on an estate to which he was not contracted to work:
St. Croix Avis, Wednesday, October 16, 1878
There is nothing new to report as to the state of the island since our last. There are no doubt some runaways still hiding in the bush at Fair Plain and perhaps around Mt. Eagle and elsewhere. One was caught a few days since at Cotton Valley, and brought in by Mr. De Leon of Coakley Bay. He accounted for his presence in that neighbourhood by alleging his fondness for whelks, and protested that he was innocent. It was explained to him that there was no objection to his taste for whelks, but that the question of his innocence must settled before the Policemaster in Bassin, and he was accordingly brought to the fort.
In another 19th-century article, a man’s survival on whelks alone is detailed:
Lightbourn’s Mail Notes, St. Thomas, Monday, June 17, 1889
During last week there were several disasters among the Fishing craft. At Savannah Island a boat was lost and one man drowned; the other was rescued from the island after several days’ hardship, during which he subsisted on whelks. At “The Brass,” Cay off Estate Hull, there was also a boat lost, but the two occupants were saved—one having had to swim towards mainland for help for the other. Two more boats were cast ashore on the North side and totally wrecked, but fortunately without any loss of life.
The West Indian (Caribbean) whelk, Cittarium pica of the family Tegulidae (also known as “magpie”), is a marine gastropod mollusk with a characteristic black-and-white shell. Pronounced “wilks” in the English-speaking Caribbean, it is known by different names in the rest of the region: “cigua” in Cuba; “quigua” in Venezuela; “bulgao” or simply “caracoles” (“snails” in Spanish) in the other Spanish-speaking islands. The species is not closely related to that known as “whelk” in Europe and the United States.
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Believed to have a lifespan of close to thirty years, West Indian whelks reproduce each year, between the months of June and November, via external fertilization: Males release their sperm into the water, and females simultaneously release their eggs. The species is believed to be a herbivore, feeding primarily at night by actively scraping algal growth off coastline rocks. And it is in the dark of night, when the whelks attach themselves to the rocks at water’s edge in order to feed, that men harvest them (in a process called “picking whelks”), sometimes being washed away by the waves to their deaths in the process. In the case of Bermuda, where whelks were harvested to extinction, they have been reintroduced.
Fabled to be an aphrodisiac, whelks are boiled in their shell, then removed from the shell, cleaned, and prepared in various ways, the most popular being in a traditional butter-sauce consisting of butter, onions, lime juice, some of the stock produced during the boiling of the whelks, and salt to taste. The traditional complement is white rice. Whelks are also combined with shrimp, lobster, squid, cockle, octopus, onion, bell peppers, olives and/or capers, lime juice, and olive oil to make a classic, chilled seafood salad, typically served with avocado and/or sweet potato.
When a Caribbean-born person ventures far and wide, one of the flavors he most craves is that of the guavaberry. And today, with next-day courier services routinely making intercontinental deliveries, it is not uncommon for a package destined for a Caribbean national to include a jar of guavaberry preserve. It is as if the fruit’s unique, spicy, sweet-bitter flavor is in the DNA of the region’s peoples.
Myrciaria floribunda, a member of the myrtle family, is a shrublike tree native to the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America. However, the species is most commonly found in the Lesser Antilles, especially on the Dutch/French island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands. The tree bears a diminutive fruit called “guavaberry” or “rumberry” that has been dubbed “the caviar of fruits”: It is tiny—about the size of a large fish egg or a pearl. The peeling-bark characteristic of the guavaberry tree is remarkably similar to that of its close relative, Psidium guajava, the botanical name for the guava fruit, which is also native to the region. Myrciaria floribunda is also botanically related to the Jamaican allspice and the South American eucalyptus.
Harvested around October, the guavaberry fruit is either blackish-red or amber-yellow in color; has a delicious, distinctive flavor, so much so that it is one of the defining flavors of the Caribbean; and is both rare and prized. And because the harvest years and times are unpredictable, the appearance of the fruit is regarded by the region’s peoples as a special blessing from Mother Nature.
The historic record indicates that pre-Columbian peoples prized the fruit. And in 1767 Christian Georg Andreas Oldendorp, in his capacity as inspector for the Moravian Church, journeyed to the Danish West Indies to report on the Moravian missions, which had been established in the islands 35 years earlier, beginning in 1732. Oldendorp remained in the islands for a year and a half, observing the islands and their peoples. In 1777 he published History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. And of the precious guavaberry he writes: “I must also make mention of another small tree which I have not at all seen, but whose berries—they are called guavaberries—I have eaten. Like cherries, they are very round, black or yellow. They have one or two small kernels, a pleasant spicy taste, and are quite healthful. They are eaten in the morning on an empty stomach. When prepared in rum, they take on a strong, sweet taste.”
Guavaberry is related to the Brazilian “jabuticaba” (Plinia cauliflora) and is similar in appearance and flavor, except that the guavaberry is about one-third the size and has a flavor of about ten times as intense as its South American counterpart. Guavaberry is also closely related to another Brazilian native, Psidium cattleyanum, also known as strawberry guava or cherry guava, and like guavaberry, comes in two varieties, purple-red and yellow.
The guavaberry plant tends to thrive in sunny, hilly terrain with rich, rocky soil. Because the tree is more shrub-like than tree-like, the fruits are most efficiently harvested when ripe by shaking them from the branches onto a drop-cloth or net. The somewhat-astringent fruit, which tastes like lingon berry, but with undertones of juniper, is oftentimes eaten fresh. But because guavaberry is relatively scarce, it is typically preserved to ensure an annual supply. Held between thumb and index finger, the fruit is gently squeezed, thereby expelling its round stone, which is about half the size of the fruit. The juice, pulp, and skin are then cooked with sugar to make a preserve that is traditionally used to make open-face tarts and as an obligatory topping of one of the layers of the authentic Crucian Vienna cake. The preserve is also added to rum then filtered (typically through cheesecloth or a coffee filter) to make “guavaberry liqueur,” customarily drunk during Christmastime throughout the Caribbean, but especially in the Virgin Islands, Sint Maarten/St. Martin, and part of the Dominican Republic. “Guavaberry rum,” on the other hand—also drunk in the region during the Christmas season—is made by macerating the fresh fruit in rum, thereby infusing the rum (traditionally kept in a demijohn) with guavaberry’s unique flavor and reddish color, a process which takes at least a year. Stored in a cool, dark, dry place in a tightly sealed demijohn or glass container, guavaberry rum can endure indefinitely, improving with age. Unlike its liqueur counterpart, guavaberry rum is not filtered; it is poured directly from the demijohn, the objective being for each serving to contain a portion of the macerated fruit.
On St. Croix, Armstrong’s Homemade Ice Cream, founded in the year 1900 by Minerva Petersen, ancestor of the present-day Armstrong family of the town of Frederiksted, makes a guavaberry ice cream that is highly coveted. Offered only during the Christmas season and on the occasion of the island’s annual Agriculture & Food Fair in February, people queue up—as if buying tickets for a rock concert or a blockbuster movie—to get their serving of the locally famous ice cream.
The guavaberry fruit is so esteemed in the Virgin Islands that it has been honored in folksong. Every Christmas season, from time immemorial, Virgin Islanders serenade each other—whether in the historic towns or in the countryside—with the lyrics,
“Good mornin’, good mornin’,
ah come foh mih guavaberry,
good mornin’… [to you an’ yoh family].”
The lyrics suggest the customary right of the visitor to politely demand the holiday treat from the person whom he serenades.
Beginning in the late 1800s, when Virgin Islanders seeking employment opportunities in the sugarcane industry would emigrate to the Dominican Republic, settling in San Pedro de Macoris and La Romana, they took with them their age-old guavaberry traditions. And today, when there is scarcity of the esteemed fruit in the Virgin Islands, it is fruit imported from the Dominican Republic that fills the void. Likewise, in keeping with the custom of honoring the fruit in song, “Santo” singer Juan Luis Guerra, in his song titled Guavaberry, pays homage to the drink made of the fruit being enjoyed in the streets of San Pedro de Macoris.
Three Kings’ Day marks the closing of the Christmas holidays. And it is the tradition of the Virgin Islands to celebrate the occasion with a glass of the islands’ most venerated beverage: guavaberry rum or liqueur. Such has been the custom throughout four centuries of recorded Virgin Islands history.
It is said that God could easily have made a more beautiful bed–but He didn’t…. In all the world, there is no bed more stately than the antique four-poster mahogany beds of the United States Virgin Islands, the former Danish West Indies. Certainly, there are beds more grand, more intricately detailed, more fancy and ostentatious. But in terms of sheer magnificence, that ever-delicate balance between form and function, and understated elegance, the beds of the Virgin Islands are beyond compare. To enter a room in which one is situated is to be drawn, almost instinctively, onto it. Wherever placed in the room, the bed becomes the center of the room—the navel of the space. And it is upon those great beds that families are conceived, born, and die, generation after generation.
In 1493, as Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the New World approached the Caribbean archipelago at its center-point, it is said that he remarked that the islands—some big, some mere rocks jutting out the sea—reminded him of the legend of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgins who are said to have been massacred by the Huns near present-day Cologne as she, accompanied by her virginal retinue, undertook a self-declared pan-European pilgrimage prior to her marriage to the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica. In honor of St. Ursula and her many virgins, Columbus named the idyllic islands “Las Islas Virgenes” (“The Virgin Islands”).
Almost immediately after the Spanish conquest, the Virgin Islands—especially St. Croix because of its strategic location within the Caribbean archipelago and its relatively flat, arable land—would become the object of desire for a long list of European interlopers and colonizers, from the English and Dutch, to the Knights of Malta and the French, and motley crews of pirates in between. But it was the Danes, towards the end of the 1600s and the first decades of the 1700s, that embarked upon comprehensive, sustained efforts at colonizing the Virgin Islands, namely St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix.
Apart from pre-Columbian Amerindian furnishings, very little of which has survived, much of the furniture-making heritage of the Virgin Islands occurs during the Danish era (1671-1917). By the 18th century, as a result of profits made from the slave trade and the sugar industry, Caribbean plantations had become infamous for their immense wealth, so much so that the adage “as wealthy as a Barbados planter” would become a part of the vernacular, and St. Croix would come to be dubbed “The Garden of the West Indies.” Mansions reflecting and celebrating that wealth were built and had to be furnished and decorated—typically with European luxury items. In the beginning, European planters would import European-made furniture constructed from European woods. But it soon became apparent that the local species of termites had a special appetite for European woods, in many cases leaving the intricately carved, gold-leaf Rococo furniture of the late 18th century so structurally compromised that it would collapse upon being touched.
Beginning in the early 1700s, plantation owners would ship termite-resistant Caribbean hardwoods back to Europe, the wood then used to make furniture that would in turn be shipped back to the islands for use in the plantation mansions and urban dwellings. There are accounts of exquisite mahogany and rosewood being shipped to Europe to be made into furniture that would then be decorated with gold-leaf to suit the tastes of the day, concealing, unfortunately, the beautiful grain of the tropical hardwoods in the process.
Reimert Haagensen’s Description of the Island of St. Croix in America in the West Indies, written in the 1750s and published in Denmark in 1758 states: “The information will have to suffice on this matter for I must say something about the many rare trees that are found in such quantities there. These have all kinds of names, such as Mahogany and others of equal value. From these are made the best furniture to be had, namely writing desks, cabinets with mirrors and chests of drawers. These would, however, are sold to outsiders since there is no one on the island who can do this work. Indeed, there are samples sent home to Copenhagen.”
By the early 1800s, however, the furniture-making trade was well-established in the islands, Afro-Caribbean craftsmen emerging as major participants. In the 1820s, Lieutenant Brady, in his Observations upon the State of Negro Slavery in the Island of Santa Cruz, published in 1829, writes: “I visited nearly all of the negro houses at [Estate Manning’s Bay] and was agreeably surprised at the number of articles of household use, and of social comfort, which I met. In most of them there was a bedstead, straw bed, pillow and blankets, several chairs, a table, sleeping bench, and chest. In some there were drinking glasses, and other decent table ware, and in one a pair of decanters.” Brady then goes on to write several lines later that, “Few of these articles would have been found in a negro yard thirty years ago….”
The History of Mahogany
Swietenia mahogani is native to Cuba, Hispañola (Domican Republic and Haiti), and Jamaica in Greater Antilles, as well as the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. The tree is believed to have been introduced to the Lesser Antilles and Central America during the colonial era, between the 15th and 19th centuries.
Popularly known as mahogany, West Indian mahogany, Cuban mahogany, and Spanish mahogany (the Spanish word for mahogany being “caoba”), it has for over 300 years been regarded as the world’s finest, most versatile, and luxurious furniture wood.
An upright-growing tree, able to attain heights of 150 feet under favorable conditions, mahogany is highly prized for its dense, tight-grained, reddish-brown wood, which is conducive to a high polish.
Mahogany was first introduced to the European market five centuries ago by the Spanish, the major colonizers of the Greater Antilles, but it was the English, who in the very late 17th century, made the wood a household name. One of the earliest mentions of mahogany in English newspapers occurs in the London Gazette of February 22nd to 25th, 1702. The first reference to mahogany in the statistics of imports filed at the Public Record Office is dated Christmas 1699 – Christmas 1700: “Jamaica. Wood Mohogony….” And it is generally regarded that between 1720 and 1725, the English began using mahogany in the furniture-making trade. The Daily Journal of May 26, 1724 reports what is undoubtedly the first recorded use of mahogany in the construction of doors: “His Magesty’s Ship, the Mermaid, which is coming from Jamaica, hath on Board from thence 600 Planks of the famous Mahoginy or Redwood, which grows in no Part of the World but the West-Indies, which Wood is to be employed, in making all the inner Doors in the new Admiralty-Office, now building at Whitehall; and to be used in Tables and other Purposes for the said Office.”
By 1774 Swietenia mahogani had become scarce in most parts of its natural range, and it was virtually extinct in Cuba by the end of the 19th century. Closely related to West Indian mahogany is Swietenia macrophylla, also known as Honduras mahogany or South American mahogany. Besides sporting a bigger leaf (hence its botanical name), the South American variety is less dense, less beautifully patterned (therefore less valuable as a decorative veneer wood), and less expensive. And unlike the West Indian varieties, which are enhanced by age (the Cuban variety becoming honey-brown when exposed to sunlight and the Hispañolan, which becomes darker with exposure), Swietenia macrophylla is known to bleach if confronted by sunlight over extended periods.
The reputation of mahogany, as unsurpassed for beauty and versatility in the furniture-making trade, has led to its commercial extinction in many regions of the world. Several countries, however, have come to the rescue of the species by enacting laws regulating its harvest, use, and export.
The Emergence of Mahogany as the Primary Furniture-making Wood in the Danish West Indies
By the 1790s and into the first decades of the 1800s, with the clean, simple lines of Empire furniture becoming all the rage and oftentimes replacing the ornately carved Rococo furniture of 50 years earlier, exotic tropical woods, especially mahogany, became prized since the simple line of Empire furniture lent itself to the beautiful grain and rich color of mahogany. And it was the convergence of simplicity of line and richness of wood that laid the foundation for what would become the Virgin Islands’ greatest contribution to the decorative arts: the four-poster mahogany bed.
When Africans were enslaved and forcibly shipped to the Caribbean to labor on plantations, they brought with them their culture, professions, talents, and skills. Highborn and lowborn and skilled and unskilled alike were equalized as manual laborers. The only outlets for artistic expression were in the performing and useful arts. Who otherwise might have been or become a painter or sculptor or poet in a free society oftentimes found him/herself—during the little free time allowed the enslaved—gravitating towards performance arts such as music or dance, or towards the crafts such as cooking, jewelry-making, or furniture-making.
Wood-working and carving, still a strong tradition in Haiti, had long been a part of West African tradition before the emergence of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the 15th century. So, in the early 1800s, when European plantation owners realized that it was more practical to have furniture made in the islands by local craftsmen than shipping Caribbean hardwoods all the way to Europe to be made into furniture, that furniture then having to be shipped all the way back to the Caribbean, plantation owners began utilizing the traditional and European-trained skills of free and enslaved cabinet-makers to produce furniture for local use. What is today stylistically categorized as “Colonial furniture” is the result of a merging of European and African aesthetics.
Afro-Caribbean Influences and Traditions
By the 1830s, during the Late Empire period, African and European aesthetics had converged, giving birth to the 4-poster mahogany bed (and also the elegant, caned Caribbean rocking chairs), arguably the region’s most distinctive and celebrated contribution to the decorative arts.
The necessity of mosquito nets led to the preference for beds with tall, massive, elegantly tapered, lathe-turned, hand-carved posts, surmounted by a “tester,” a framed canopy that, in the finest homes, would typically be dressed with hand-embroidered linen skirting. And the big, upright-growing, abundantly branched mahogany trees provided the necessary lumber for the crafting of the beautiful posts from which the nets could be suspended. Footboards with open spindle-work, a design feature that triumphantly distinguishes the beds of the Virgin Islands from all other beds of the Caribbean, allow the tropical breezes to flow, unimpeded, onto the beds, thereby cooling their occupants. The footboards also impart a certain “finish” and “balance” to Virgin Islands beds that is unmatched in other Caribbean beds. Each headboard was more impressive than the next, craftsmen oftentimes having signature motifs, many of which were Afro-centric. Mattresses were high off the ground—as high as the typical windowsill, necessitating bed-stairs but also allowing for breezes penetrating jalousie windows to bring uninterrupted comfort on warm, tropical nights. The high-set beds were also infamous for wreaking havoc on the bones of careless sleepers!
The Ubiquity of the Bed
By the late 1800s, owning a mahogany bedstead had evolved as a rite of passage into adulthood for the average Virgin Islander. Most of the beds were made between 1830 and 1940—until the coming of ready-made American furniture. Modest families had “the family bed,” while more well-to-do families had a bed for each child, children typically carrying along their bedsteads when establishing their own homesteads. So much a part of the culture were the beds that a new bed would be given a “bedstead party” in order to celebrate its one-year anniversary: The bed would be dismantled and reassembled outside the home in a public space of the community so that it could be blessed by clergy and praised by neighbors. (At the end of the party, the bed would again be disassembled and then reassembled in the home.)
Virgin Islands four-poster mahogany beds are so esteemed that they are oftentimes bequeathed in last wills and testaments. It is not uncommon, for example, for a testator to dispose of real estate and cash then the bed: “And the mahogany bed upon which I slept should go to….” It is also not uncommon for a mahogany bed to be at the center of family discord and discontent: “Mama had always said that her bed should go to me….” And one of the most highly regarded gifts from a godparent to a godchild is a four-poster mahogany bed. So coveted are the beds that some are said to be haunted by their former owners, making for many a restless night for unapproved subsequent occupants. And many of the islands’ present-day prominent families—the families that produce the lawyers, doctors, university professors, clergymen, and, of course, artists, for example—descend from cabinet-makers who were able to command, on account of the cultural admiration for fine mahogany furniture, a respectable income in the decades following Emancipation in 1848, thereby acquiring private property and availing their offspring to higher education.
Though not as obligatory or ubiquitous as they once were, Virgin Islands four-poster mahogany beds are every bit as revered, locally and abroad. And on the rare occasion when they are offered at international auctions, they are known to command enviable prices.
Wayne James, former senator and author of the critically acclaimed Manly Manners: Lifestyle & Modern Etiquette for the Young Man of the 21st Century (2016), has just penned an eye-opening, jaw-dropping blogpost titled, “Bromosexuals: The Naked Truth.”
The ‘bromosexual’ is arguably the foremost emerging social phenomenon of modern men’s lifestyle,” James said. “It’s a masculine behavioral construct that is little-known and less understood. Even online slang dictionaries offer opposing definitions of the term.”
Men’s subculture, however, essentially defines the bromosexual as a man’s man: the über-male who is so masculine that—ironically—he prefers the company of men over that of women. Not to be confused with “bromance,” which describes an intimate, but platonic, relationship between two men regardless of their respective sexuality, the term “bromosexual” is a mash-up of “bro,” which is the shortened form of “brother,” and “homosexual.” Essentially, he is a jock-type who has intimate, sexual relations with other jock-types, his homosexuality or bisexuality hidden behind a veil of virility. The operative term within the term “bromosexual” is “sex.”
“Mere men are Homo sapiens; but bromosexuals are Bromo sapiens,” James said. “Metrosexualsneed not apply, and effeminate men simply do not qualify. To be admitted into the ranks of the bromosexual, a man must appear unmistakably—and stereotypically—heterosexual: the fireman; the construction worker; the Harley-Davidson leather-clad biker; the NFL player; the Wall Street womanizer. And he is oftentimes the most vocal critic of non-hetero sexuality. But looks are oftentimes deceiving, and actions speak louder than words.”
James’ groundbreaking blogpost traces the bromo phenomenon from its early manifestations in college fraternity houses, to its prevalence in prisons, to how it is camouflaged in traditions of “boys’ night out” and “men-only” fishing trips.
“This is the opposite of Brokeback Mountain or Life on the Down Low,” James said. “This is man-on-man sex in plain view, but behind your back. A bromosexual and his ‘bro’ workout together, eat together, party together, vacation together, are friends with each other’s wives. To the unwitting, their relationship is a platonic bromance—just two friends ‘joined at the hips,’ “ James said.
Wayne James is currently writing a 300-page book on this emerging lifestyle. Based on personal observation, Bromosexuals: In Plain View—Behind Your Back, is scheduled for a September 2021 publication.