St Johns Fragrance Company: A Storied History of Invention, Spirit and Tradition
What does it mean to be unapologetically masculine? The answer to that question began 75 years ago, when U.S. Navy Captain John Webb blended Jamaican rum with tropical bay leaf oils from the Virgin Islands. He then added herbs like basil and thyme, spices like clove and cinnamon and even subtle notes of orange, eucalyptus and sandalwood. The result is the timeless fragrance still preferred by modern gentlemen: Bay Rum®.
Between our fragrance and our iconic, hand-woven palm frond bottles inspired by Virgin Island fishing baskets, we continue the Caribbean tradition today. St Johns Fragrance Company built upon that spirit of adventure and innovation, leading to a carefully curated collection of distinctive men's fragrances in a wealth of grooming products.
Due to its healing nature and incomparable fragrance, bay leaf oil has always been sacred to the Caribbean people. Once Capt. Webb caught wind of this local flora, he knew the whole world could benefit. Bay leaf oil combined with native spices make for an unapologetically masculine scent, which is why St Johns Bay Rum has been a favorite for 75 years. We know the importance of staying true to tradition, which is evident in every whiff and every hand-woven Fishpot Weave® bottle. Quality like this doesn't come along often; when it does, it's best to not tamper with perfection.
How Bay Rum Came to Be
The history of St Johns Fragrance Company has its origins deep in the island culture of the Caribbean. Our signature bay leaf oil comes directly from the bay rum tree that thrives on the island of St. John and has long been recognized for its healing properties.
When Danish chemist Albert Heinrich Riise mixed bay leaf oil with the outstanding rums of the Virgin Islands, he created a uniquely scented medicinal potion that quickly gained a worldwide reputation. His innovation led to the prominence of bay rum as an essential export throughout the world. Some historians estimate that 1,000 gallons of St. John’s bay leaf oil were blended into 35,000 gallons of bay rum at its pre-Prohibition peak.
Once the United States enacted Prohibition in 1921, large exports of bay rum ceased, but crafty manufacturers were quick to find a workaround. By adding aspirin to bay rum, they could skirt the exportation regulations. Instead of selling bay rum as a libation, this new product was advertised as a heal-all for aches and pains.
Even after Prohibition, the healing reputation of bay rum stuck and industry production rose to over 100,000 gallons annually. A popular song of the day, titled The Bay Rum Hounds, even lauded the end of Prohibition by singing: "Roosevelt is wet, Hoover was dry / Grab a bottle of bay rum, and let Hoover by."
How Capt. John Webb Created a Legend
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Captain John Webb found himself stationed in St. Thomas during World War II. He already understood the importance of bay rum to the Virgin Islands and set out on a mission to revive the industry. By blending bay rum with spices native to the area, including bay leaf oil, he began producing the signature fragrance of St Johns Fragrance Company.
The Fishpot Weave® bottles were part of his original vision, too. Inspired by the local fishermen’s hand-woven baskets, he used that iconic palm frond weave around the bottles. To this day, each bottle is hand woven by island artisans with palm tree fronds. Our unique packaging and high-quality fragrance continue to be popular, whether gentlemen are purchasing our Bay Rum® aftershave, cologne or other grooming products.
In addition to his clear vision, Capt. John Webb also had the gift of timing. During the post-war era, the market was full of men looking to refresh their grooming routine and elevate their style. After years of being denied basic needs, these gents were ready to live a little, which meant a surging demand for luxury goods like colognes and aftershaves. By commissioning innovative ad campaigns that highlighted the tropical origins and timeless quality of its products, St Johns Fragrance Company became a household name throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The business changed hands several times in the ‘60s, finding a home with corporate giant Warner-Lambert in 1963. Ohio retailer Jerry Woodhouse then bought the brand from Warner-Lambert and relocated to St. Thomas in order to be closer to the business and its heritage.
Woodhouse negotiated major retail distribution deals with high-end retail giants like Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor and secured product placements in iconic films and TV shows, such as M*A*S*H, Lenny, A Single Man, Archer, Joan & Betty, Scent of a Woman and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Thanks to Woodhouse’s business savvy, the Fishpot Weave® bottle from St Johns Fragrance Company became synonymous with masculinity, prestige and authenticity.
How the Islands Have Shown Resilience
In 1995, Hurricane Marilyn struck the Virgin Islands, destroying not only the St Johns factory, but also many Tyre palms used to create the Fishpot Weave® bottles. Dedicated employees worked around the clock to salvage what they could, enabling shipments to resume within just a few weeks.
Despite the fast recovery, the brand continued to struggle and almost lost its way. In 2016, the Welles brothers, who knew the brand was a favorite of their father's, purchased the company from Mr. Woodhouse. They assembled a leadership team to rebuild the business and bring the brand back to its rightful place in the American gentleman’s daily grooming routine.
In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall on the Virgin Islands within just five days of each other, devastating the St Johns factory yet again. Leadership created a limited edition Hurricane Series featuring undamaged fragrances and digitally printed Fishpot Weave® bottles. They even donated a portion of proceeds to relief efforts across the islands. While island life is paradisiac, Mother Nature can be unpredictable. Fortunately, the spirit of St Johns Fragrance Company continues to prevail.
How St Johns Ads Have Changed Through the Years
TIME WAS WHEN MEN WERE MEN, AND THEIR COLOGNES KNEW IT.
We took a look at some really unique and interesting advertisements we found in the archives recently and can’t help but remark on how entertaining these must have been in their time. Actually, they are still quite entertaining and well crafted. A nice nod to Charlie’s Angels with the subtext that our West Indian Lime Cologne will break down a woman’s resistance to you. This ad is pretty straightforward and the visual clearly implies that if you wear St Johns, pretty girls in bikinis will be hanging all over you. This ad was very successful and struck the right chord for young guys in the 70’s.
How St Johns Has Carried Through to the Present Day
After all its growth and a few setbacks, St Johns is stronger than ever. With a continued focus on handcrafting quality products and honoring the rich history of the brand, gentlemen of a new generation are discovering what St Johns Fragrance Company has to offer. The classic fragrances maintain their original formulas and new scents have been added over the years, so there’s a sophisticated fragrance for every modern man.
Despite hurricane damage, the Tyre palms of the islands are flourishing once again, and a network of local basket weavers still craft each Fishpot Weave® bottle by hand. Every unique bottle is just as exceptional as the island itself and we are honored to call this tropical archipelago our home.
St Johns Fragrance Company is proud of our history and the future we're creating, too. By staying true to our distinctive and authentic Bay Rum® product, our brand has demonstrated an unparalleled strength and resilience. From the original St Johns Bay Rum® to the appealing No. 77, St Johns Fragrance Company offers products that unite a rich history, unparalleled luxury and modern sensibility.
Authentic. Independent. Resilient. Timeless. St Johns.